Survive & thrive: One tough dude

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:

Yearly checkup

"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 percent.

"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."

Chlorinated connections

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 in Dallas.

Bobby was, of course, Bob Patten's son. It turned out Dr. Krongrad had swum on Bobby's Masters team when he lived in Texas.

"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 started training.

"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 team.

World record

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."

Originally Published: 20051001

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