Swimming fitness helped him survive cancer treatment
Bob Proebsting is used to winning; but rarely are the stakes so high and the odds so worrisome as in his recent battle. Before we get to that, let's remember how he got to be one of our best.
Bob was an All-American swimmer both in high school (Maine Township near Chicago) and in college. He chose a small college, Knox College in Galesberg, Ill., because he was offered an academic scholarship there and he wanted to make sure he wouldn't have to put swimming ahead of his studies. He did well in both, breaking nearly every record in the Midwest Conference during his college years. The NCAA made no distinction between big and little colleges in those days, and he was the only swimmer from the Midwest Conference to go to the NCAA championships. He placed there both as a sophomore and as a senior, and became the first swimmer from his conference to make All-American. He recalls, with humor, that one year he personally made enough points to tie the Stanford Swim Team all by himself. He says they weren't so strong in those days.
After college, he assumed his days as a competitive swimmer were over. It took him more than 20 years to discover Masters swimming, and then it was on a blind date with the Masters swimmer who later became his wife, Arlene.
Then, fifteen years later, right after Thanksgiving in 1995, he got a rude shock. He had a tummy ache and went to the doctor on Arlene's insistence. A CAT scan revealed a grapefruit size tumor in his stomach, blocking his intestines, and that was the cause of his tummy ache. He had none of the classic symptoms of cancer. Looking for the cause, the doctors found cancerous growth in his spleen. It was a particularly aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He had surgery to remove the tumor and then had very heavy duty, experimental chemotherapy at Stanford Medical Center. He was the first patient to have this form of chemotherapy at Stanford, and maybe the first in the nation. Though it was not a time he wanted to be first.
Chemotherapy works by introducing poisons into the body that kill cells. It kills cells that are growing rapidly, like cancer, and certain other vital cells. By removing the vital cells during chemotherapy and freezing them for restoration later, stronger chemotherapy poisons can be used to kill the cancerous cells more quickly. The therapy included stimulation of the body to put a lot of the bone marrow stem cells into the blood stream. Then a machine filtered out the stem cells from the blood, and the cells were treated for cancer and frozen. Then mega-doses of chemotherapy killed all his remaining bone marrow as well as the cancer cells wherever they were. The chemotherapy lasted from December to January, with one heavy dose, maybe all in one day, and then three weeks off, repeatedly. Under standard treatment, it was said that he would have had a 30% chance of recovery, and an expectation of two years to live.
He went to short course nationals at Dianza College to see friends, but he says he looked like a person who had cancer, pale and bald as a billiard ball. He had been losing five pounds a week and felt lucky to have his cushion of extra weight to start with.
On October 14, 1996 he got a battery of tests and no cancer was detected. This means he is now said to be in remission. His color and weight are back to normal, and his hair is back where he used to have hair.
His doctors give lots of credit to his splendid physical condition at the onset of his cancer. They say it is a major reason why he fared so well in treatment.
He says he won't be as strong a competitor when he returns to swimming, as chemotherapy does heavy damage to the heart and lungs. But he'll return to swimming as soon as he gets the go-ahead from his doctor. He will be at the Pan-Pacific meet and at both nationals, Federal Way and Orlando. And he wants to thank the many Masters swimmers who called and wrote to wish him well during his ordeal. They included people from all over the country, including many who he did not know.
He and Arlene are expecting a new litter of Newfoundland puppies, and will name them after Olympic swimmers. They live in Los Altos, Calif., and swim for Los Altos Masters.