It’s a Thursday morning in the Bowers home in a suburban neighborhood in Ken Caryl Ranch southwest of Denver.
Thirteen-year-old Lily and her friend are up after a sleepover, and 11-year-old Will is playing video games. With his children enjoying a fall break vacation, Matt prepares for a day that will include him shuttling them to various activities while squeezing in a full-time job, fixing meals and attending to some household chores.
A typical day – except for one glaring absence, one gaping presence, one huge loss. Missing is Emeli Bowers – Matt’s wife, and Lilly and Will’s mom, who died at 44 in June after a four-year battle with non-smoking lung cancer.
“Between two kids, every night there’s something going on, and that’s what she would have wanted. She would say, ‘I want you guys to be happy. Whatever that means and whatever it takes, just keep living and be happy,’’’ Matt said.
In the months since Emeli’s struggle ended, the three Bowers have taken her wish to heart, continuing to flourish as best they can without the person who had been the center of their world.
“She was a super mom,” said Matt, 48, of his wife of 16 years. “She was supportive. She loved her family. She was super sweet and a lot of fun. She was easy to be with. We had a great openness; we knew each other and what we each liked.”
That connection between the couple happened from the beginning, when they both lived in Chicago and met in the fall of 2004 through mutual friends at a football party: “She was the best-looking girl who’d ever talked to me,” he recalled with a laugh.
Midwestern roots before heading West
Matt was an Ohio native who graduated from DePauw University and got his master’s degree from Vanderbilt. Emeli grew up in Indianapolis, graduating from Indiana University and its Kelly School of Business, where she was a proud member of the Delta Zeta sorority and even crowned an Indy 500 Festival princess.
Post-graduation jobs led them to the Windy City, where they met, and after dating for a year, they moved to Las Vegas, got engaged in 2006 and married in 2007. They were both working for Caesars Entertainment, Emeli in the IT department and Matt in marketing. They spent three years in Vegas before relocating to Memphis for a year and then back to Emeli’s home state for four years. When Matt was recruited by Intrawest for a job opportunity in Colorado, they moved to Jefferson County in 2015 with their children, then 4 and 1.
Colorado, and specifically, Ken Caryl, was the perfect spot for the fun-loving and outdoorsy couple and their growing children: a close-knit community with good schools; proximity to skiing, camping and hiking 14’ers, and prime access to trails for Emeli, who was an avid runner. They traveled, enjoyed their careers – Emeli continued to work remotely for Caesars – and they considered themselves blessed with a thriving family and many friends.
But a wrecking ball suddenly crashed into their lives in March 2019. Emeli had developed a persistent and nagging cough and was struggling to finish some of her runs. A visit to her physician didn’t raise any alarms. She was young and fit, so the doctor prescribed some routine cough meds.
Then came a follow-up X-ray.
“I remember the phone call,” Matt said. “She said, ‘Come home. Come home right away.’ I knew immediately something was very wrong. My mind was going a million miles an hour. She said, ‘They found something in my lungs.’’’
Devastating news for the family
By the time he raced home from his Denver office, Emeli had received more details about her diagnosis. The news was worse than either could have imagined: She had non-smoking lung cancer, specifically, Stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer, which had already spread to her neck, back and hips.
“From then on, it was a time warp,” he said.
The next day happened to be the beginning of spring break for the kids, and the family had planned a Florida vacation to visit her parents. Emeli kept up a brave face for Lily and Will and flew down with the family so she could deliver the grim news to her parents in person. She flew back alone to Denver the next day so she could immediately begin treatment.
Matt stayed with the kids, whom they hadn’t told, and tried to summon the mental and emotional strength to create a vacation for them, as the couple knew the “normal” would soon vanish from their lives.
“She was a woman of action. After she found out her diagnosis, she was all about: ‘Who do I call? What do I do? Where do I go?’”
That “where” turned out to be UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, and the “who:” lung cancer specialist Dr. D. Ross Camidge. Camidge is a strong advocate for personalized treatment approaches for patients with lung cancer so they can live as long as possible with more good moments than bad ones.
“We want the people who have lung cancer to do normal things and lead normal lives as much as possible,” he said.
Troubling increase in lung cancer among women
Between 10 and 20% of people in the United States who die of lung cancer each year have never smoked. Camidge said doctors are examining a very troubling trend showing an increase in the number of younger women getting lung cancer with no history of smoking.
“There are chemicals in the air and water that we are all exposed to, but why is the disease becoming more prevalent in women? It’s unknown right now, but there may be something with how these chemicals interact with women’s bodies. More research is ongoing and needed,” Camidge said.
The diagnosis for anyone with lung cancer, such as Emeli, usually comes out of the blue, tragically caught late. In 50% of cases, by the time the diagnosis is made, the cancer has already spread to vital organs. Traditionally, the average survival time for advanced lung cancer has been measured in months.
“She wasn’t curable the moment she was diagnosed,” Camidge said. “But while that used to be the headline of the story for these patients, that is the narrative we’re trying to change. For many patients, while we still can’t cure, we can get the cancer under control and let them live their lives for several years.”
Emeli also had a very rare sub-type of cancer that was only discovered in 2011 called RET. Standing for Rearranged During Transfection, RET is a normal gene that gets altered in some lung cancers, turning it into the dictator of a cellular revolution. This occurs when a piece of the RET gene joins with another gene and creates an abnormal signaling protein that gets stuck in an “on” position. The non-stop signaling causes the cancer cells to multiply and spread. Camidge explained that RET occurs in just 2% of lung cancers.
But Emeli and Matt had some reason for optimism in that doctors at the University of Colorado Cancer Center are aggressive in finding experimental therapies for lung cancer patients. They put as many as 40% of them on clinic trials – 10 times the national average, Camidge said, which can mean extending a patient’s life for many months or even years.
Fighting to the end
Emeli was immediately entered into a clinical trial that included a new RET inhibitor drug called BLU 667, and within two days, her cough had stopped, and she was feeling better. Unfortunately, after about 10 months, an MRI showed the cancer had metastasized again, this time to Emeli’s brain.
Her medical team pivoted to another clinical trial for a different RET inhibitor called Selpercatinib, or LOXO 292, which was better targeted at killing cancer cells.
She also had her first round of brain radiation consisting of 10 sessions over two weeks, which is when the couple told Lily and Will, as they knew she would lose her hair during this latest ordeal.
Emeli was able to tolerate the LOXO drug for two years, and the family was encouraged that the cancer looked to be in check. She continued to work, they traveled, and she was an active mom, attending Lily and Will’s school and sporting events and maintaining a positive attitude.
But while the new drug was keeping the cancer at bay, it caused debilitating side effects such as horrible inflammation and water retention, and side effects for treating those issues caused even more health issues that affected her quality of life.
She made the decision to stop LOXO 292 and return to BLU667, and by the summer of 2022, the cancer returned to her brain.
“That was the hardest news to take,” Matt said.
By this point, she’d had four surgeries and as many as 20 ER visits, and she underwent a second round of targeted brain radiation. Only then did she take a leave from work.
Matt recalls a January 2023 ski trip to their mountain home in Winter Park, where Emeli was adamant about skiing the runs she once had so easily mastered. She needed Matt’s help to push her foot into her boot, and then he helped her get dressed, and they headed out. After a short while, she quickly lost energy, and he helped her get down the hill.
“That was Emeli, though. Always so determined,” he said.
A month later, her older sister and best friend Stephanie Quinto arranged a girls’ getaway weekend for the two of them at a spa near Austin. Emeli had just completed her radiation treatments, but she braved the plane trip so they could spend time together as they had always done through the years.
“We all understand the concept of appreciating every day, but she really embraced that,” Stephanie said. “She would say, ‘Today is a great day to be here and see my kids.’ It was all about love, giving love and receiving love.”
Driven, determined, devoted. And tough.
“She was a fighter,” said Stephanie, 47, who lives outside Indianapolis. “She really didn’t want this to define her. She wanted to live her life and the cancer to be secondary. It was always, ‘I can do this’ despite the cancer. She was always so positive and talked about being involved in the medical clinic trials. She would tell me not to Google what she had. She’d say, ‘I will tell you how my scans look; don’t go online and look at the statistics.’”
Family members said Emeli didn’t want to let anyone down. When Lily had a lacrosse game, or Will had a flag football game, she was there watching, even if Matt had to carry her to the car. She had a high tolerance for pain and didn’t complain, he said.
“That was the deal we made,” Matt said. “Life would go on as normal as possible.”
Soon after she returned from Texas, Matt noticed major changes in Emeli’s behavior. She was forgetful and getting weaker until one day, she couldn’t get out of bed. Thinking she’d had a stroke, he rushed her to UCHealth ER, where they learned she had areas of necrosis in her brain, an inflammatory side effect from the prior radiation that can compromise and ultimately destroy some brain tissue and with it, for Emeli, the ability to speak and use fine motor skills.
Matt then assumed the role of full-time home health aide, helping Emeli dress, eat and bathe. He became her voice when she could no longer vocalize her needs, intuiting what she wanted the way couples who have been together many years know what their partner is thinking.
“I could tell they had worked out a way of communicating. It was very touching,” said hematology and oncology nurse practitioner Candice Rossi, who was part of Emeli’s care team at the UCHealth Lung Cancer Clinic. “She couldn’t speak, but she would shake her head ‘no’ or ‘yes,’ and he would help interpret her needs.
“They were a remarkable couple who truly understood each other and were so committed to one another, and under such stressful times. Matt was amazing,” Rossi said.
Camidge also was impressed with Matt’s support of Emeli, as well as her own tenacity and courage.
“He never complained. A cancer diagnosis can really test a couple. The relationship can get stripped down to its essence and put in the spotlight. And they were both really dedicated to each other,” Camidge said.
Emeli’s sister Stephanie said she watched Matt live out his marriage vows, “in sickness or in health,” during those final days when he was at her sister’s side 24-7.
“I always knew he loved my sister, but I saw that put in practice so clearly every day in those last few months,” she said.
By spring 2023, Emeli’s health had rapidly declined. She could no longer climb the stairs each night to say goodnight to Lily and Will, a ritual she had cherished, and Matt sensed that she was tired of the fight she had endured for four years. They had discussed end-of-life options, and they both knew it was time.
In June, Emeli stopped all medication, entered hospice and died a few weeks later at her home with Matt by her side. Her mother, visiting from Indiana, had spent time with her and left five days before, and the children were away at summer camp, which is what she had wanted.
Emeli’s goal, he said, was to make it to the five-year mark, which she nearly achieved.
There were memorials in Indiana and Colorado where Lily and Will both spoke about how much they loved and missed their mom. Matt is proud of them both and knows Emeli would be too.
“I told them that the Bowers do hard things. Their mom did hard things.”
Lily said her mom was her best friend and biggest supporter: “She was the most caring person I have ever met.”
In Will’s words, she was “really strong, loving and nice” and “will never be forgotten.”
The family has gotten through two change of seasons as they adjust to life without her: a summer and autumn full of sports, camps and the start of a new school year: eighth grade for Lily and sixth grade for Will. They plod ahead, missing, mourning, remembering, and recognizing that there is no clear-cut path or instructions for dealing with their grief.
“We’re kind of on the dark side of the moon, and we need to get back to Earth,” Matt said. “There’s always some anger of ‘why’ and the worry of ‘what could be,’ but if you only focus on those two things, it’s a waste of energy. It won’t change anything.
“And Emeli wouldn’t want that. She fought to the end. She had all the personality traits I fell in love with, and at the end, they were still there, but in a different way. She looked different, and she couldn’t do what she wanted to do, but she was still the same person.”
A person who loved her family first and foremost.
By now, Thursday morning had turned into early afternoon. Lily and her friend had manicures planned and a mall outing; Will had somewhere to be, and Matt had calls to make and emails to answer.
It was another busy day, and their family was together. Just like Emeli would have wanted.
A passage Emeli wrote on her Caring Bridge page from February 2020:
“Faith has been a HUGE part of this journey, especially for me, and GOD has delivered. I wake up every day feeling God’s Love, Peace and Presence. And the small amount of people that do know have provided us all the love and support we could ever ask for. Especially Matt, I’m sure no one is surprised, but he’s been incredible through this journey.”