After running the Boston Marathon 27 times, you'd think Bob Lehew would have experienced every trial a runner could face. But this year, he experienced a new challenge. Bob ran the race halfway into his six weeks of radiation treatment for squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer.
"I was happy to see the finish line," he says, shrugging off the accomplishment modestly.
At age 71, Bob has run more than 220 marathons and a handful of ultramarathons.
"I'm a pretty competitive guy," he says. "I guess pain and suffering are just my strong suit."
Showing strength during squamous cell carcinoma treatment
Bob had signed up once again for the Boston Marathon long before he was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma in late January. After he noticed a lump on his upper right check, he scheduled an appointment. His dentist thought it was TMJ, but the biopsy showed that it was cancer. He moved quickly and had the tumor removed by a surgeon in Dallas. He then made an appointment at MD Anderson.
The tumor was located in the parotid gland. The facial nerve passes right thru the parotid gland, and Bob worried that his surgeon would have to cut the facial nerve in order to remove the tumor. Fortunately, they were able to avoid this, but the nerve was aggravated.
The procedure saved Bob's life, but left him unable to move the right side of his face. He spoke clearly, but was unable to smile. His right eyebrow was replaced with an arch-shaped scar, often hidden by a "Boston Strong" baseball hat.
He also suffered from dysgeusia, which made it difficult for him to taste, as well as some fatigue. "I'm not opposed to taking a nap these days," he says.
Next, he began his radiation treatments. But after three weeks, Bob skipped his radiation treatment in favor of running 26.2 miles.
The Boston Marathon had always been special to Bob, and he knew this year was special to Boston. It would be his 28th consecutive Boston Marathon. He had to be there. His doctor, Amy Hessel, M.D. -- a marathon runner herself, "a lean, mean, running machine," in Bob's words -- knew that marathon runners can be a stubborn bunch.
"She didn't necessarily recommend that I go," Bob says. "But she said, 'If you can do it in the middle of radiation, then you'll be my hero.'"
"That was a big inspiration," he adds.
Bob finished the race in six hours forty minutes. It was much longer than his personal record of two hours and 51 minutes at Boston back in 1988. But he finished. He attributed the accomplishment to the sacrifices of his three children, nine grandchildren, many friends and "a six pack of doctors."
The next day following the marathon he was back at MD Anderson, making up for the treatment he had missed on Monday, the day of the race.
Getting back to Boston after cancer treatment
For Bob, the Boston Marathon is what started it all. Bob has always been athletic. He played for the varsity soccer team at Ohio State University, but he was never much of a runner -- until he was out jogging one day and saw a man wearing a jacket with a patch on it. He thought the jacket looked cool and asked the man how he could get one. The man told him he had to run the Boston Marathon. From that moment on, Bob was determined. The man, Marvin, put together a training program which Bob followed and qualified for his first Boston back in 1987. He's been back every year since.
Even in 2010, after he'd undergone a bypass surgery, Bob laced up his running shoes for the race against his doctors wishes.
"No one ever accused me of being smart," Bob says.
With his 28th marathon behind him, Bob is looking forward to finishing his treatment, ringing the bell and getting back to work in Dallas. Once he's home, he can start training to get back to Boston in 2015.
"Boston's still my favorite race," he says. "I expect to be back next year, but with a much faster time."