Cancer Survival and Swimming
By P.H. Mullen
Swimming World Magazine Most men celebrate
their 100-day anniversary from prostate cancer surgery quietly. After all, most
are still in recovery mode, still getting back into the game of life.
Not Bob Patten. The wiry, 70-year-old
Colorado Masters swimmer celebrated our way -- by diving off the blocks and
setting a Masters world record. But that part of the story is just the result,
the climax, the crescendo.
The other part of the story is about the
ridiculously small, don't-I-know-you? world of Masters swimming, where nearly
everyone is interconnected in a vast, chlorinated web of friendships, shared
workouts and common on-deck encounters.
Here's how Patten tells it:
"I was 69 and feeling really good -- no
symptoms ... but during a yearly checkup, my PSA level was up. That's the test
for prostate cancer. It wasn't up a lot, but it caught the attention of the
doctor. The urologist said, 'You're the last person I'd expect to see here.'
A biopsy confirmed Patten had prostate
cancer, the most common cancer in the U.S. with 232,000 cases diagnosed
annually, according to the Prostate Cancer Foundation (PCF). That's a new
diagnosis every 2.5 minutes. The disease strikes one in six (American men,
usually after age 50. Domestically, it's one-third more prevalent among men
than breast cancer is among women. That's why "men of a certain age" should be
screened for it annually.
The good news is that prostate cancer is
slow-growing. Five-year survival rates after diagnosis are nearly 100
"I didn't look at it as life and death. I
looked at it as something I needed to get through. I wanted to get on with it.
If I waited ... well, I wanted to get rid of it."
Patten is one tough dude ... has been his
whole life-through his schooling at Colorado School of Mines and University of
Denver and swimming mostly on his own -- through owning an industrial-equipment
company -- through becoming an early widower.
He has mowed down numerous national and
world breaststroke records as he moved through the age groups over the past 35
years of Masters competition. Since 1981, he had not gone more than three days
without a workout.
There are multiple options for treating
prostate cancer. Radioactive seeds. Cryosurgery. Radiation. Radical surgery.
Due to its slow advancement, a wait-and-watch approach is common.
"A friend said, 'Let me go introduce you to
a friend who waited and watched.' I said, 'Great, OK. When?' He said, 'Any
time. But we'll have to go to the cemetery.' That helped get me going."
Patten's son, Rick, a former SMU swimmer,
researched the options and found a clinic in Miami that performed a radically
new, minimally invasive surgery called laparoscopic radical prostatectomy
(LRP). It reduced recovery time dramatically Rick hadn't heard of anything like
it. He sent an e-mail."
That's when the chlorinated world of Masters
connections started sloshing.
The clinic owner and surgeon, Dr. Aron
Krongrad, was interested in Patten's situation, sure. But what he really wanted
to know was whether Bob Patten was related to Bobby Patten, the highly
successful Masters coach and swimmer who operated a top Masters program at SMU
Bobby was, of course, Bob Patten's son. It
turned out Dr. Krongrad had swum on Bobby's Masters team when he lived in
"Bobby and I flew to Miami (for surgery),"
recalls the senior Patten. "Our meeting felt much more like a swimmers' reunion
than a meeting with the doctor. ... Dr. Krongrad invited Bobby and me to
evening Masters workout. ... It was a beautiful evening, the sun gently setting
over swaying palms. "Being a good patient, I was careful not to swim too
fast and unwittingly embarrass my surgeon the night before surgery. ... Bobby
amused himself by trouncing the teenage swimmers who were in his lane."
The surgery was a success. The tumor was
more advanced than expected, but "margins were clear." In cancer lingo, those
are the magic words.
So how tough is Patten? The day after
surgery, he went for a beach walk -- after turning down all pain medications.
Sometime during that laboriously slow 1.5-mile stroll, the catheter tugging
painfully against him, he made one of those look-forward decisions that
separate the Survive & Thrive crowd from everyone else.
"I'm going to the long course nationals in
August. That's in a hundred days. That's what I have to get ready."
Patten went home with the catheter still
attached. When it came out after 10 days, he slipped gingerly into the pool and
"I swam easy for about ten days. ... Then, I
said, 'I am going to nationals. So let's start working.' "
In an astonishingly quick time, he was back
to his old regime, training six days per week at the Denver Athletic Club, up
to 3,500 yards per session with 50 percent breaststroke. He also lifted
weights. It was his tenacity. But it was also surgical procedure, which
drastically reduced recovery time. He and Krongrad make a pretty good relay
By the time of the 2004 summer Masters
nationals in Savannah, Ga., Patten was nearly in his pre-surgery form. Swimming
in the 70-74 age group for the first time, he crushed the age group world
record in the 200-meter breaststroke by more than 1.5 seconds (3:18.20). Talk
about a triumph of will, fitness and recovery.
"The announcer was saying a world record had
been set, and I'm looking around to see who beat me," laughs Patten.
It turns out his brush with mortality didn't
slow him down; it sharpened him more than he knew.
"I've always been a believer that you can
work through most things. The body is an amazing thing. It can recover from
almost anything -- if given the chance."