Before passing away from colorectal cancer, Cindy Stowell won over $100,000 in "Jeopardy!" and donated the money toward cancer research.
Courtesy Jeopardy Productions, Inc.
Courtesy Jeopardy Productions, Inc.
At the end of her winning streak on “Jeopardy!,” after she had won six games and just over $100,000, Cindy Stowell was satisfied. But when the episodes featuring Stowell aired on TV several months later, those who knew her were left longing for more.
“A couple of people said they secretly hoped she’d never stop winning, because it would let them have one more day with her,” her boyfriend, Jason Hess, recalls.
Instead, her friends and relatives in Austin, Texas watched the first three episodes of Stowell’s winning streak at her funeral. The 41-year-old science content developer died of metastatic colorectal cancer on Dec. 5, eight days before her first “Jeopardy!” appearance aired. Her memorial service was held the evening the nation watched her make her third win.
“We held it at a movie theater,” Hess says of the memorial. “After we had a somewhat solemn service — although it was full of fun stories about her — we watched her do really well on ‘Jeopardy!.’”
Even before she appeared on the show, Stowell had set a winnings goal of $100,000, and had decided that, if she did win the money, she would donate it to cancer research “to help others.” Her fulfillment of those dreams was reported online by “Jeopardy!,” and then in news stories across the nation.
“It resonated with a lot of people,” Hess says, “because so many have lost loved ones to one form of cancer or another and have seen how rough it is, especially toward the end, how much of a struggle people go through.”
Stowell’s success on the show — and her donation of the funds to the nonprofit immunotherapy-focused Cancer Research Institute (CRI), which will work with patient advocacy group Fight Colorectal Cancer to disperse the funds to a research team — has reverberated within the cancer community, too.
“To be able to be clear-headed and functional and actually win six times is an amazing feat for anybody, let alone someone who’s struggling with an advanced cancer diagnosis and probably treatment,” says Dawn Eicher, a Hawaii resident who, like Stowell, was diagnosed with colorectal cancer as a younger adult. “You never want to hear about anybody losing their battle, but we are all very inspired by her. She set out to raise money for people and achieve her lifelong dream, and she did it. Nothing is more selfless and inspiring than someone like her.”
The Road to “Jeopardy!”
Not surprisingly, Stowell’s relationship with Hess arose from academic pursuits. The two met in the study hall in their college dorm.
Although they had each watched “Jeopardy!” as kids, neither was involved with trivia games at the time. Stowell had once tried out for a teen “Jeopardy!” tournament, but then turned her attention to her education, eventually earning a Ph.D. in chemical engineering.
When game nights started to pop up locally about five years ago, “we thought it might be fun to give it a shot,” recalls Hess, 41, who manages an engineering design team. “We had fun and started going more regularly, got a little better, got to know people and formed stronger teams. We met some new friends, and it was a good social outlet.”
Then “Jeopardy!” started offering online tests for potential contestants, and the couple each took one per year, the maximum number allowed. After passing the quizzes, they’d wait to see if they got selected to attend in-person tryouts. “You have to walk through the stories or anecdotes you’d tell on the show and play a mock game, so they can get a feel for how you’d be on TV,” Hess explains.
Stowell was selected for a Boston audition three years ago but never put on TV; more recently, she was invited to audition again.
But by then, she was facing some obstacles. Due to ulcerative colitis, Stowell had been regularly screened for colorectal cancer. But in March of 2015, abdominal pain between screenings led to a colonoscopy, which detected an intestinal blockage. It was stage 3b colorectal cancer.
Stowell was treated with surgery followed by FOLFOX chemotherapy. But in November of 2015, the cancer recurred on one of her ovaries, so she underwent an oophorectomy and a second-line chemotherapy regimen. Two months later, cancer developed again at the same site, and Stowell agreed to undergo HIPEC — more surgery, followed immediately by heated chemotherapy in her abdominal cavity. Unfortunately, complications arose that led to sepsis and a prolonged recovery.
“By the time she recovered from the complications from that surgery, the cancer had spread,” Hess says. “This past July, a PET scan found new spots on her lungs and liver. Once it metastasizes, they classify it as terminal, and she was given a three- to six-month prognosis. It was a really hard last couple of years. She tried everything she could, but it just wasn’t meant to be.”
It was a week after she was told she’d run out of medical options that Stowell received the invitation to audition in person for “Jeopardy!.” She reached out to the show to find out if it would make sense for her to pursue the opportunity.
“Do you have any idea how long it typically takes between an in-person interview and the taping date?” she asked, according to a “Jeopardy!” press release. “I ask because I just found out that I don’t have too much longer to live. The doctor’s best guess is about six months. If there is the chance that I’d be able to still tape episodes of ‘Jeopardy!’ if I were selected, I’d like to do that and donate any winnings to…charities involved in cancer research. If it is unlikely that the turnaround time would be that quick, then I’d like to give up my try-out spot to someone else.”
A show staff member counseled Stowell to attend the audition in Oklahoma City, and promised that, if she qualified to compete on the show, she would be booked for a taping as soon as possible — three weeks later, on Aug. 31, 2016. “They met her and took a liking to her and decided they wanted her to be on,” Hess says, “and they accelerated it to try to maximize the chances that she would be still feeling OK.”
She wasn’t, really, when she arrived in Los Angeles to compete.
“She was still dealing with complications from the previous surgery that were causing her to get recurring blood and urinary tract infections, and persistent problems with anemia due to internal bleeding,” Hess says. “The night before we got to L.A. for the taping she had been feeling pretty bad and gotten sick a couple of times, but the morning of the taping she was doing a little bit better. Maybe the adrenaline helped her rise to the occasion. During the taping, she was obviously OK for the first game, but you play multiple games in a row, and in one game she started running a fever. The makeup people kept touching her up during commercial breaks because she started sweating like crazy.”
While the show’s host, Alex Trebek, and a few staff members knew Stowell had a terminal illness, her competitors did not.
Stowell’s ability to win despite her deteriorating health was due to a few factors, Hess guesses.
“Most of her games were definitely a battle,” he says. “She came from behind several times, and sometimes she was not as fast on the buzzer as she would have been at full strength. She knew a lot of stuff and she wagered really well, and she was really pretty strong on the final questions, where she had more time to think. Those were not as reaction-based, and allowed her a couple of times to come from behind by getting it right where everybody else missed it. Even at home, she was always really good at the final ‘Jeopardy’ question, teasing out a good guess even when she didn’t know, and that definitely paid off.”
Between rounds of the game, although speaking quietly, Stowell showed the nation her fun personality and sense of humor, even telling Trebek a story about gathering with a group of teenagers to moon the coast of France while on a cruise with her mother.
“She looked at this as something she had wanted to do, and it was probably her last chance to do it, so more than anything, she went on the show to do something fun,” Hess says of Stowell, whose family includes her parents, a brother, a sister-in-law, a niece and two nephews. “There were a lot of things not fun in life at that point, so it was like a ‘last hurrah’ type of thing. She was that way with other things, too — she continued to try to make plans for things next year, just because she didn’t want to ever concede defeat. She kept wanting to keep trying to live, despite all the circumstances.”
Stowell expressed that attitude herself in a tribute video (jeopardy.com/contestant-cindy-stowell) that was taped by CBS shortly after her “Jeopardy!” appearances.
“Even when you think the odds are completely against you,” she said, “somehow, via luck or something, things can work out.”
A Lasting Legacy
Even if they didn’t, Stowell was determined to help ensure that others in her situation would, in the future, have better prognoses.
“She couldn’t take the money with her, so she found something good to do with it,” Hess says. “She was a scientist at heart. She had training in the sciences and really wanted it to go someplace that funded a lot of the basic research.”
Ultimately, CRI was selected to receive the gift because it “had pretty impeccable ratings from a lot of the charity watchdog groups, with low overhead and a high percentage of money that goes directly to benefits,” Hess explains. As executor of Stowell’s estate, he’s working to pass along her winnings to CRI, once tax and estate considerations are taken care of.
When CRI announced its anticipated receipt of the donation on its website, the organization experienced an outpouring from others inspired by Stowell’s story. At the requests of prospective donors, CRI created a web page that invited people to give money in the “Jeopardy!” champion’s name.
“It really moved people, and we’ve had a number of folks make individual donations to CRI in Cindy’s memory,” says organization spokesman Brian Brewer. As of Feb. 3, those donations totaled $80,603.77, and the number was continuing to rise. “Every dollar helps in cancer research,” Brewer says, “so we’re going to put all that money into this memorial fund.”
Among those donors, Hess says, were some past “Jeopardy!” champions who played along at home with Stowell’s episodes and donated a dollar for every question they got right — a considerable number, of course. Some donors also gave to charities other than CRI in Stowell’s name.
“It’s such a touching story to begin with, and the fact that someone realizes their lifelong dream to be on a game show and donates her winnings to help other people who are facing or will face cancer, when they’ve only got months to live, is heroic and was extremely inspirational,” Brewer says.
Going forward, Stowell’s story will be a part of the narrative of both CRI and the nonprofit, Fight Colorectal Cancer. And while CRI funds research into all kinds of cancer subtypes, Stowell’s money will be used specifically to fund colorectal cancer immunotherapy research.
“There’s been a lot of progress in that area, and been subsets of patients recently identified as being responsive to treatment with immunotherapy,” Brewer says. “Last year, we announced a partnership with Fight Colorectal Cancer to explore further why patients respond, and to discover ways to help other patients with colorectal cancer who aren’t (in those subsets) to respond.”
Through the partnership, in addition to crafting a blueprint for the evolution of immunotherapy in colorectal cancer treatment, each organization contributed $200,000 that will be awarded to investigative teams doing promising research in that field. Stowell’s funds will be added to that pot, says Andi Dwyer, director of health promotion for Fight Colorectal Cancer.
The partner groups are seeking proposals for either $200,000 or $400,000 grants by scientists who believe their ideas “will move the needle forward to advancements,” Dwyer says. “Cindy’s money might allow one more proposal to be funded, or one to be funded in a bigger way.”
The selected projects and teams will be announced this spring.
Dwyer added that Fight Colorectal Cancer will continue to tell Stowell’s story as part of its effort to raise awareness about a rise in younger-adult colorectal cancers, even as the incidence of the disease among older adults is dropping.
“The under-50 group of people are scared of inertia, that no one’s listening,” Dwyer says. “People are inspired when they see someone like her getting out there and sharing the message (that younger people can get the disease).”
Stowell’s accomplishments impressed Suzanne Lindley, a contributing blogger at curetoday.com who has been living with stage 4 colorectal cancer since she was diagnosed 18 years ago, at the age of 31.
“I see it as totally inspiring, because as a survivor and someone living every day with a terminal illness, to see that she’s getting out and living life — being on ‘Jeopardy!’ knowing what her outcome is probably going to be — shows that you’re not dying from cancer; you’re living with it,” Lindley says.
“I admire the fact that she made such a huge impact. It takes a lot of courage to tell anybody that you have colon cancer or are dealing with a life-threatening illness, because you don’t know how they’ll react. If you can do that in a positive way instead of with pity, then it’s a very powerful thing. She sent a powerful message.”