Sitting outside the CoHo in a black Portland Trail Blazers T-shirt with coffee in hand, Jimmy Fowkes ’14 could easily pass for your average Stanford student.
A self-proclaimed atheist majoring in religious studies, Fowkes hails from Portland, Ore. He lives in Potter House and spends much of his Sundays with his friends watching football, his favorite sport.
Fowkes has also fought a continuous battle against brain cancer for the past seven years.
As a 13-year-old, Fowkes was diagnosed with medulloblastoma — a highly malignant brain tumor — on Jan. 11, 2006. Fowkes said that his initial reaction to the news was a mix of shock and fear.
“I was terrified,” he said. “Because when you hear you have cancer, you think you’re going to die.”
After his diagnosis, he spent six days in the intensive care unit of his local hospital. During that time, Fowkes’ father signed him up for the Livestrong Challenge, the signature fundraising event for seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong’s nonprofit organization Livestrong, which seeks to help people affected by cancer. The Challenge consisted of a bike ride anywhere from 15 to 100 miles, with all proceeds being donated to cancer support or research.
“Lance [Armstrong] was really the only cancer survivor my dad had ever heard of or knew of, so he signed us up,” Fowkes said.
What started as simply a fitness goal quickly blossomed into something much more.
“When I was in recovery I ended up reading Lance’s book [It’s Not About the Bike], and everything that he had done really inspired me to fundraise,” Fowkes said.
Instead of simply paying the $500 minimum to participate in the challenge, Fowkes turned to fundraising, soliciting his immediate community of relatives and friends for contributions to his cause.
“The response was incredible,” he said. “I ended up raising something like $33,000 in my first year. I just really realized how much support I had from my friends and family and how much they cared about me and wanted to help.”
His success fundraising that year did not go unnoticed. As he hit $17,000, Fowkes got a phone call from Renée Nicholas, a Livestrong staff member.
“She said, ‘Lance is doing an event over at the 24-Hour Fitness [in Portland], and Lance wants to meet Jimmy,’” Fowkes said. “So I went over to the 24-Hour Fitness and got to meet him.”
Nicholas has since become close with Fowkes through his continued involvement with Livestrong.
“I really just had an immediate connection and a tremendous amount of admiration for his courage and intellect and really just general spirit,” Nicholas said. “He was a really remarkable person, and that was evident even at a really young age.”
In the following years, Nicholas and the other staff members at Livestrong became an indispensable source of support, guidance and friendship for Fowkes and his family.
“Going into it, I think I just was kind of alone and didn’t know anyone else with cancer,” Fowkes said. “I had had lots of support from my family and friends and everything, but [Livestrong] was really the first time I could meet other cancer survivors and talk about their experiences.”
Allison Watkins, currently on the marketing team for Livestrong, also met Fowkes in 2006 through his first Livestrong Challenge.
“I think a lot of his success came from being really open and honest,” she said. “He was able, at a really young age, to tell his story and tell what was going on with his diagnosis. People were really drawn to that.”
However, Fowkes’ relationship with Armstrong was perhaps the most unique. Armstrong even hosted the Fowkes family when they went to Europe during the Tour de France one year.
“When we were over in Italy and France, we went and saw his tour, he took me on the team bus and introduced me to his people,” Fowkes said. “He’s a really nice guy, and I don’t think that the media sees that side of him.”
Fowkes and Armstrong have remained close over the years even after Armstrong ended his professional racing career. Armstrong rode for Fowkes in the 2010 Tour of California, an 810-mile bike route during which Armstrong crashed only a few miles into the race. Coincidently, Armstrong’s crash came the day he was first accused of doping by Tour de France teammate Floyd Landis.
Fowkes declined to comment on Armstrong’s drug scandal, though he did express disappointment at the fact that Armstrong has been depicted by the media as a “bad person” despite his work with cancer survivors.
“He’s been labeled as a bad person,” Fowkes said. “I won’t tell you whether he’s a bad person or a good person, but I think there’s a side of Lance that people really get to see, and I think that it’s a side that’s been really good to me and also really, really cares about helping cancer survivors.”
Fowkes said that Armstrong’s departure from Livestrong after the scandal broke had upset him.
“I think to a certain extent the foundation needs him, and to a certain extent he needs the foundation as well,” he said.
Despite this controversy, Fowkes insisted that Armstrong will continue to serve as a role model for cancer survivors across the world.
“He was a huge inspiration, especially when I was first diagnosed,” Fowkes said. “He had this approach to battling cancer as more of a fight, instead of just ‘I’ll get treatment and hopefully it works.’ So it’s been a goal of mine throughout my treatment to stay involved with my regular life as much as possible.”
Fowkes returned to middle school two weeks after being released from the hospital after his first diagnosis.
In high school, Fowkes was an honor roll student, a member of the junior varsity soccer team and an active participant within Livestrong. Since his first fundraiser, Fowkes has raised more than $200,000 for the foundation.
During his senior year of high school, Fowkes was accepted into Stanford, his first choice. Watkins and Nichols reflected with pride on his accomplishment.
“In my cube, I have a picture of Jimmy and his parents on the day that he went to Stanford, because that was a huge moment for all of us,” Watkins said. “He’s been through so much, and we didn’t know if he’d ever make it to college.”
Nicholas visited Fowkes at Stanford for the first time three weeks ago.
“I can imagine what it must have felt like for his parents, as someone who cares very much for him, and saw him go through a tremendous amount of hardship and pain, and do it with such bravery, such fight, and such spirit,” she said. “To see him walking out of his dorm dressed like any college kid, knowing what he had to do to get there – I was overwhelmed with emotion.”
Fowkes acknowledged that balancing his life as a college student and cancer survivor has put things into perspective.
“I think [cancer] really made me see things differently,” he said. “It made me care a lot more about other people, and I think it made me a better person.”
Although Fowkes hopes to major in religious studies, he doesn’t plan on continuing this field of study after college. Instead, he emphasized his desire to focus on providing encouragement for others with cancer.
“Ever since I’ve been diagnosed, it’s always been really important to me to support others battling cancer because I’ve been through it and I hate the fact that other people have to go through the same thing that I went through,” Fowkes said. “So it’s something I’m very passionate about, and I could definitely see myself getting involved with some sort of charity.”
Fowkes suffered bouts of his cancer at ages 13, 15 and 19. During the start of his junior year, he underwent daily chemotherapy sessions in an effort to combat the disease. His cancer metastasized to other parts of his brain and his spinal cord.
“People look at him as a hero and an inspiration because he’s wise beyond his years and he’s accomplished so much and been through so much at a young age,” Watkins said. “I think he’s really understands and embraces what it means to live strong.”