Press: ‘Nashville’ star Clare Bowen overcomes scars from childhood cancer

She remembers being really cold.

Clare Bowen, 4 years old, couldn’t move her legs. Her parents rushed her to the hospital in Sydney. It was the first time the little Australian girl had ever been in air conditioning.

In that chilly hospital, the girl overheard grim doctors say “end-stage nephroblastoma,” words she didn’t know. But Bowen understood when they told her parents she was dying.

The blonde-haired little girl calmly asked her mother: “Are there heaters in heaven?”

As a child, Bowen remembers that her dad was a flight attendant for first class on Qantas airline. Her mom owned a clothing shop and baked wedding cakes. And she took care of the little girl, who spent more time with animals than other children.

They had a pet white mouse named Albert, and a canary named Aloicious. A stray Russian blue cat, Butch, would wander by the house now and again, and when Mom put out a bowl of food for the cat, she sometimes put a bowl of milk down for her daughter, who would drink it right next to the stray.

The little girl ran to meet Butch every time the cat came by. But the day before her legs stopped working, Bowen, not feeling well, ignored her feline friend.

“I remember not caring he was there,” Bowen said softly.

The tumor was the size of a football, crushing virtually everything inside the little girl’s body.

Doctors said she had about two weeks to live, but there was this experimental treatment – one that might kill her outright.

“They asked my parents to sign a release. They had to sign a release to basically poison me,” Bowen said.

Doctors wanted to shrink the tumor to the size of a grapefruit before they went after it to remove it.

The surgery lasted 10 hours. Surgeons rolled the girl onto her left side, cut near her waistline around half her body, and pulled out the tumor – and one of her kidneys and part of her diaphragm and some of her guts that had been damaged by the tumor.

Bowen stayed in the hospital for a year, maybe longer, and staff and relatives tried to make it as comfortable and even as fun as possible. The little girl’s name was painted on her door.

Her mother snuck her canary and her mouse into her room, and a family friend brought a Labrador to the hospital gardens to play with the sick little girl. Nurses did arts and crafts with Bowen and the other children.

Sometimes, Bowen felt awful, and nurses and doctors would rush her into various treatments.

‘We were all bald’
The most jarring day came when a child died in the recovery room they shared.

“I woke up, alarm bells going off. We didn’t know each other’s names, and I didn’t know if he was a boy or a girl. We were all bald,” she said.

“I looked to my left and saw the little one’s mother holding the child, and the child had gone completely limp.

“This woman was just screaming like something had been torn out of her,” Bowen said, pausing. “It’s not normal, but it happened all the time.”

The worst day was when her best cancer buddy, Jackie, died the same week doctors started letting Bowen sleep at home.

Bowen, crushed, couldn’t shake the feeling – Why did her friend die and she lived?

“I had survivor’s guilt and I didn’t even know it,” Bowen said. “I never really cared what happened to me but I wanted to take care of others, even as a girl.”

Bowen, sleeping at the family home, still went to the hospital each day for treatment and monitoring.

Sometimes, the girl woke up vomiting, and couldn’t stop, so the family would rush her to the hospital.

Through all of it, extended family showed up regularly. Bowen smiled when she remembered having about 20 relatives in her room one day, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, sitting on the floor with them eating chicken nuggets, talking and laughing.

Panic attacks
Bowen had a tough time returning to school because other kids’ parents feared the sickly, gaunt girl, mistaking her as a victim of the AIDS epidemic sweeping the hospital at the time.

“Other mothers used to pull their children away from me,” she said. “They didn’t want their children traumatized by my impending death.”

A year or so later, Bowen enrolled in Catholic school with supportive, loving teachers and administrators. She slowly integrated back into being a little girl again.

But lingering health issues and survivor’s guilt left Bowen feeling off: “I didn’t have a good sense of self-esteem and I was constantly sick with side effects from chemo.”

Panic attacks racked her as a teenager, and she had them often enough that she started to be able to manage them.

“Even if I’m worried and horrible panic attack feelings kick in, I’m rational enough to say, ‘Keep going, breath in some energy.’”

With time and therapy, Bowen, now 32, has begun feeling a sense of self-worth.

“I learned to love myself,” she said.

Bowen was able to stand with her brother, Timothy, as he fought and beat cancer recently.

And Bowen – an actress who plays singer/songwriter Scarlett on CMT series “Nashville” – has begun to speak publicly about the disease and her battle with it.

She famously cut off her long hair in fall 2015 to show support for a little girl who said she couldn’t be a princess anymore because she didn’t have long hair.

“I wanted her, and others like her to know that’s not what makes a princess, or a warrior, or a superhero. It’s not what makes you beautiful either,” Bowen posted on Facebook.

“It’s your insides that count… even if you happen to be missing half of them.”

Bowen also served as a keynote speaker last year for a Country Cares seminar for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and she has visited children with cancer and other chronic illnesses in Nashville and elsewhere dozens of times.

Two months ago, she has released her first solo single, “Love Steps In,” a tribute to her brother’s cancer battle written by her fiancé, Brandon Robert Young, and songwriter Justin Halpin.

“This song accomplished more than I could ever imagined. It has been nice to make lots of people smile and feel things.”

Bowen hit the Opry stage Jan. 13 to sing the song, which led to thousands of people sharing cancer and chronic illness stories with each other since on social media.

That in turn has helped Bowen with her healing.

“All of my insecurities and all my feelings of shortcoming have been linked to not doing enough to make the world better,” she said.

“When you’re able to give people a vehicle to express something they’ve had locked up, that’s the greatest privilege as an artist.”

Mid-season finale for ‘Nashville’
CMT airs the mid-season finale of “Nashville” at 8 p.m. Thursday (March 9).

In the episode, titled “Fire and Rain,” there will be a big twist for Scarlett, played by actress Clare Bowen, network publicists say. No word on what that twist will be.

Also in the episode, CMT posted on its website, “Juliette helps Maddie navigate the wave of attention she receives after her performance at the CMT Music Awards. Zach demands the masters from Rayna and Deacon’s unfinished album.”

CMT plans to start airing new episodes again this summer, but no date has been set yet.
Reach Brad Schmitt at brad@tennessean.com or 615-259-8384 or on Twitter @bradschmitt.
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