ESPN’s Holly Rowe Refuses to Let Cancer Win

ESPN’s Holly Rowe Refuses to Let Cancer Win Photo by Phil Ellsworth / ESPN Images

“Fight every moment so that cancer is

not the most interesting thing about you.”

by Kaylene Chadwell

holly rowe espn cancer
Holly Rowe catches up with University of Oklahoma Sooners shooting guard Buddy Hield during a 2016 regular season game.

You can’t watch college football (or basketball, or softball, or the NBA, or WNBA) without seeing Holly Rowe. A Sports Emmy nominee, Holly is one of ESPN’s most popular college football sideline reporters, as well as a play-by-play commentator for a wide range of sports. She’s the one interviewing players and coaches before, during, and after games, asking the hard-hitting questions. Known for her ability to always get the job done, even going so far as to climb on top of a table to make sure she got her post-game interview, Holly is widely respected by top coaches and players, as well as her ESPN colleagues. 

Over the past two years, though, Holly’s unconquerable spirit has been put to the test as she fights a rare form of cancer, all while she continues to travel and work for ESPN. According to Holly, one day she’s undergoing intravenous immunotherapy infusions, and the next she’s reporting from the sidelines of the Texas vs. Notre Dame football game. 

“I’ve gone some days where I’m at the hospital all day getting blood drawn or getting infusions,” Holly shares with Coping magazine, “and, the next morning, I have to fly out and cover a football game. It’s just a very weird life to go from being a cancer patient one day to being an ESPN sideline reporter the next.” 

Holly was first diagnosed in May 2015. She explains, “I had a spot on my chest that looked ugly, and I thought, Oh, I’m going to go get this removed, thinking it was no big deal.” 

I just can’t sit at home and feel sorry for myself. If I limit my schedule and don’t do what I love, then cancer is winning a little bit.

However, the “ugly spot” turned out to be desmoplastic melanoma, a rare, invasive form of the deadly skin cancer. While her doctor was able to surgically remove it, with clear margins, Holly admits she was shocked by the diagnosis.

“I think every single person who hears that word – cancer – just panics,” she reveals. “It’s a frightening thing. And I just felt this disbelief. I’m a young, healthy, go-getter, scrappy person. How could this possibly be?”

After another melanoma was found in January of this year, Holly underwent a second, more invasive surgery to remove it, along with 29 lymph nodes. Then she entered a clinical trial where she endured 30 grueling days of infusions. “It was really, really awful,” Holly admits. “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. But I made it through.”


However, she had a recurrence shortly after, which necessitated another treatment protocol. She’s now undergoing a different type of immunotherapy treatment, one she anticipates being on for the next two years, going in every three weeks for infusions. 

Through it all, though, Holly has continued doing the work that she says brings her joy. “I think I’m getting lifted up greatly by working and seeing inspiring athletes,” she says. “I’m lucky because my job is inspirational, watching other people succeed.

“A lot of people question why I do work and try to keep being such a go-getter,” she admits. “And it’s simple, because I just can’t sit at home and feel sorry for myself. If I limit my schedule and don’t do what I love, then cancer is winning a little bit. For me, it’s a way to keep my mind off the stress of it.”

Another thing that Holly says has helped her as she fights cancer is the support she’s received from her family, especially her son, Mckylin. She declares they have been the backbone throughout her cancer journey. Her colleagues, the coaches and players she covers, and, of course, her many fans have also shown incredible support. “I’ve just had an outpouring of support,” she says. “Every single day, I have tons of messages on social media. It’s so great because it just keeps me going knowing that people are there for me.”

Holly’s Words of Inspiration for Cancer Survivors

• It’s easy to let cancer take over your life and to be consumed by the treatments and the schedules and the appointments and the not feeling good. Fight every moment so that cancer is not the most interesting thing about you, and it’s not the thing that’s consuming your day – that way you’re living a full and peaceful life.

• My doctor said it’s very good for people with cancer to have positive attitudes and to want to fight. For me, that means working and doing the things I love.

• Let’s make everything important. Let’s make everything worthwhile. There’s so much we worry about and stress about that has no impact on what life is really all about. So try to eliminate the dumb stuff, whether that’s worry, or wasting time, or minor problems. Let’s just get rid of them.

• You can’t let cancer control your life or your thoughts, because it’s easy to let it. It’s easy to let the fear creep in and control you.

• Ask for help! Don’t be ashamed to be vulnerable and ask for help when you need it. People want to feel helpful and support you.

LIKE THIS ARTICLE? CHECK OUT:  Cobie Smulders: Strong. Empowered. Survivor.

• There’s a lot of us who are going through this, and we can help each other and let each other know, ‘Hey, this is okay.’ Let’s start doing this together. Let’s laugh at this together. There’s no owner’s manual for cancer.

holly rowe espn cancer
Holly Rowe interviews Coach Geno Auriemma of the University of Connecticut Huskies during the 2016 NCAA Women’s Basketball Final Four game.

Holly tries to stay connected to those who are supporting her by sharing her journey, mostly through social media. For her, it’s also a way to show solidarity with other cancer survivors. For example, in July, she posted a video to Facebook of her head being shaved. She wrote, “So today was interesting. Had to have a little fun with this and laugh so I don’t cry!!! Much love to all cancer patients going thru this. Let’s be strong together.”

Surprisingly, Holly admits that losing her hair has been one of the most difficult parts of the cancer experience so far. “This sounds so shallow and ridiculous,” she confesses, “but I had gone through hideous treatment and other really tough parts of having cancer, and, for some reason, my hair falling out was the toughest thing I went through. It makes you feel vulnerable and sick. There’s something about when it changes the way you look, when cancer changes how you look at yourself and what you look like in the mirror, that gets to you. It’s like, Now, I’m a cancer patient.”

But she didn’t let her bald head get to her for long. Though she sometimes wore wigs for on-air coverage, Holly didn’t shy away from displaying her baldness proudly. And beautifully, too, for that matter. In the process, she’s become an inspiration to other women battling cancer, showing definitively that you can be bald and beautiful.

Now, as her blond hair grows back in, short and spiky, Holly is keeping tabs on her cancer with periodic scans and plans to continue sports reporting for ESPN. After all, it’s not just a job to her; it’s a passion. 

“I just did a game that was the best game I’ve been at in probably 20 years – the WNBA Championship Finals Game 5,” Holly shares. “I left that arena, and I was just overwhelmed, blown away. I am so grateful that I was here for that – that I have fought through this cancer and not given up, so I can be here for moments like this.”

Keep up with Holly Rowe on Twitter @sportsiren.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2016.