When Diagnosed With Prostate Cancer, It Was Sink Or Swim For Military Vet

January 8, 2018
By: Jessica Hyland, Writer

Bob List and Dr. George at a masters swim event in 2016.

When Robert “Bob” List, 72, a retired colonel with the U.S. Marine Corps, was diagnosed with stage 2 prostate cancer in June 2006, he immediately began to research the “enemy” threatening to take his life. His 26 years in the Marine Corps taught him how to accomplish a mission, deal with adversity and overcome life threatening obstacles. No less treacherous than the adversaries he had faced on the battlefield, cancer, to him, would be no exception – he needed a weapon as adaptive and multiform as the disease itself. 

“It was like someone turned the lights out on me,” recalled List, describing how he felt when he was diagnosed. “I hadn’t experienced any symptoms; I had always adhered to a healthy lifestyle. Initially, I told the nurse practitioner at my yearly physical appointment that, because I felt fine, they didn’t need to test my PSA levels. Boy, am I glad she insisted I undergo the test anyway.”

After his diagnosis, the Nichols, South Carolina, resident scheduled an appointment with his local urology practice. His doctor recommended surgery, but List wanted a second opinion. Less than a month after his diagnosis, List was at Duke Cancer Center with prostate cancer specialist Daniel George, MD.

The multidisciplinary clinic at the center includes rotating visits with oncologists from three disciplines: surgical oncology, radiation oncology and medical oncology. Working together as a team, his specialists devised a personalized treatment plan, which included a neoadjuvant radiation trial, testing radiation before surgery.  

In 2007, his prostate cancer was no longer detectable; he was in remission. However, his cancer had a high risk of recurrence, so List stayed vigilant. In case the “enemy” returned, he would be prepared, alert and ready.

In 2009, his PSA levels started to rise. The cancer was back and this time, it was stage 4. As any warrior knows, military strategy revolves around the planning and conduct of campaigns, the distribution of forces and the utilization of battles to win wars. For List, it was time to pivot. He and his wife decided to retire earlier than planned and solely focus on beating his cancer. List knew he needed to be mentally and physically stronger than the cancer, so he added swimming to his exercise regimen. 

Duke researchers have shown rigorous exercise helps combat the side effects of cancer treatment. While doctors recommend daily exercise for everyone, researchers are continuously studying the effects of physical activity in cancer patients, which has been shown to improve quality of life and ease some cancer-related fatigue. More, it can help fend off a serious decline in physical function that can last long after therapy is finished.

“I was a competitive swimmer in high school and college, so I started swimming again because it’s rigorous and keeps me in shape,” explained List.

List also searched for an outlet of support to help him during his treatment. He decided to join the local masters swim team in South Carolina.

“Basic battle strategy tells us that a period of respite restores the mind and strengthens the body, making a solider more effective on the frontline,” shared List. “My masters swim team is my own version of respite – swimming keeps my body strong and my mind sharp and focused.”

Bob List with all his masters swim meet medals.

Under the care of George, List participated in two additional clinical trials, Disulfiram and Kanglaite, in addition to hormonal therapy. In 2013, a CT scan detected a prostate cancer tumor in his left lung, which was surgically removed. After the surgery, he was treated with Eligard to reduce his testosterone level to zero and kill the remaining cancer cells. In 2014, eight years and two diagnoses later, List declared victory over his cancer. The treatment plan successfully disturbed the disease’s ability to wage a war against his body. Today, List is cancer free.

Still on his local masters swim team, he has consistently ranked in the top ten in the country in breaststroke. Overall, the cancer survivor has won 21 medals at national championship swim meets and in 2015, he clocked the 10th fastest time in the world for the 50m breaststroke competition in his age group.

“I want people to know they can beat cancer and continue to do the things they love in life, they just need to believe in themselves,” shared List. “Look for active things to strengthen you – ride a bike, run or walk, swim. Devote your energy to getting better because I promise you it works. Most importantly, listen to your doctors – you chose them for a reason.”

The Duke Health and Fitness Center has a specialized program designed to help people undergoing and recovering from cancer treatment. A blended focus on fitness, stress management, and nutrition provide patients with the tools and support they need to maintain their strength, stamina, and positive outlook.

If you have recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer and are interested in scheduling an appointment with the multi-disciplinary clinic at Duke, please call 919.590.0241. Find out more about prostate cancer care at Duke here.