Bright, athletic, gregarious, and kind, Owen Strong was enjoying a quintessential life in Manhattan. Living with college friends from Tufts, he was working in the family real estate business and recording songs with his band, the Evening Fools. Then, in February 2018, at age 28, Owen was beset by blinding, inexplicable headaches. Without mentioning anything to his family, he sought help from his trusted pediatrician, who referred him to a neurologist. An MRI revealed a deadly mass in his brain.
Owen’s sister, Leda, and their parents, Ed and Laurel Strong, were on vacation when they got the news. “I think of it as a roadside bomb,” says Ed. “It was just so unexpected.”
Cecily Strong, a cast member on Saturday Night Live, is Owen’s cousin. She wrote in her memoir, This Will All Be Over Soon: “I don’t know how long I sat frozen on my bed making these guttural wailing sounds. I kept saying, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no. Not my little Owen.’ ”
Owen, on the other hand, had joked, “Of all the people Googling ‘brain tumors,’ I am the one who actually has one.” That he maintained his sense of humor was no surprise. “He was funny and kind,” says Leda. “He put everyone at ease.”
A Devastating Diagnosis
The family came to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in March 2018, where neurosurgeon Cameron Brennan removed the tumor — a glioblastoma, the deadliest of all brain tumors. Owen underwent six weeks of radiation and several months of chemotherapy under the care of neuro-oncologist Adrienne Boire, who also conducts research supported by Alan and Sandra Gerry through the Alan and Sandra Gerry Metastasis and Tumor Ecosystems Center at MSK.
For the next eight months, Owen continued life as a 20-something: working, seeing friends, attending weddings. For Halloween, Owen went to a party dressed as the Big Friendly Giant, a character from a Roald Dahl children’s book. There, his eyes fell upon 25-year-old Stacia Smart. They began dating, and Owen told her he had brain cancer.
“Of course, I was completely shattered,” she recalls. “But, I thought, ‘OK, I’m here and the universe wouldn’t put me in a situation I didn’t know how to handle.’ ”
Stacia and her family were well-versed in the grief of glioblastoma; Stacia’s uncle had died from it years earlier. When Owen broke the news to her, she says: “I decided then and there that I wouldn’t leave his side. I was all in, and we were going to go through this together.” And so they did, falling quickly and deeply in love.
When the tumor recurred, Owen took part in a clinical trial at Duke University Medical Center. Owen’s MSK team collaborated with his doctors at Duke the entire time.
The experimental immunotherapy was a success initially, but six months later, Owen began to lose the use of his left side. Stacia would set out his meds and help him button his shirt. When he could no longer read or watch TV, they’d listen to Harry Potter audiobooks together. In early January 2020, a year after he started treatment at Duke, he went into the Neuro Acute Care Unit at MSK. Several days later, Dr. Boire gathered the family.
“Leda had asked [Dr. Boire] if Owen was scared when she told him … that he would have hours to live,” Cecily Strong recalls in her memoir. But fear didn’t come up. “Instead he thanked [Dr. Boire] for trying her best and for all she’d done for him.” Owen died on January 11, 2020. He was 30 years old.
During Owen’s illness, Stacia had taken to cycling. “It became therapy,” she says. “Some days, it was a complete and welcome escape. Other times, it was a release of the terror, anger, and pain that comes when someone you love — someone you cannot imagine a world without — is terminally ill. The weight of everything would be processed during those rides.”
On a walk with her parents shortly after Owen died, Stacia told them that she wanted to make a solo bike tour down the East Coast to raise funds and awareness for glioblastoma research at MSK and Duke. She would call it G’Owen Strong.
“It was something I could do for Owen, to honor him,” she says. Her parents, Gerald and Stephanie Smart, joined Ed and Laurel in planning logistics for the 1,000-mile route along the East Coast Greenway that would pass through places important to Owen. On September 11, 2021, after a year and a half of training, Stacia’s ride began with a benediction at Tufts.
The first major destination was New York City. When Stacia arrived at MSK on September 17, Dr. Boire and other members of Owen’s care team were outside waiting for her. Photos were taken; teary hugs exchanged. “The last time I had seen Stacia was at Owen’s memorial service,” says Dr. Boire. “It was good to see her moving on with her life, surrounded by people who love her.”
Reconnecting with Owen’s MSK team was “so healing,” says Stacia. “It meant a lot to me that I could see them in a positive situation. It gave me the fuel to keep going. They’re fighting for thousands of people, so supporting them means supporting all patients.”
Stacia says she felt Owen’s presence every day. Even when thunderstorms were predicted, the ride was not once interrupted by rain. “I had sunshine following me down the East Coast,” she says. Upon arrival at Owen’s high school, St. Andrew’s School in Delaware, crowds cheered and a bald eagle circled overhead. Owen, who had always loved birds, was clearly with them, says Stacia.
The Start of Something Big
Stacia crossed the finish line one month and 1,100 miles after her start. She raised more than $56,000 for brain tumor research at MSK.
Leda imagines her brother’s reaction would be: “You didn’t have to do all that for me!”
Of course, the ride was not just for Owen; it was for all brain cancer patients in the future. Philanthropy is especially important in this field because the government and pharmaceutical companies can be reluctant to fund out-of-the-box experiments. But out-of-the-box thinking is essential to discovering a treatment that works against such a devastating cancer.
Stacia says the future of G’Owen Strong is, well, going strong. She’s dreaming up another event. She says, “Crossing the finish line, I thought, ‘This is just the beginning.’ ”
Follow along at owenstrong.com. To learn how you can join the MSK fundraiser community, please contact [email protected] or visit giving.mskcc.org/fundraise.