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Family, friends matter most to man who's twice battled cancer

Posted: Sunday, November 28, 2004

 

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  Wearing a 25-pound backpack, Summer makes his way up a short grade along Kobuk Street during his daily trip for coffee. "The first time I walked down here, man, was I beat," Summer said. But the short walk, slight grade and light pack are a good start to the climb ahead. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Bob Summer, right, receives a hug from his daughter Rebekah after a family dinner last week. There have been a lot of hugs in Summer's life the past few months as he has fought another round with "a particularly nasty" form of cancer.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

If ever there were a candidate for exemplifying the phrase "living on borrowed time," it would be Soldotna's Bob Summer.

After surviving two bouts of cancer the latest just this summer an associated heart condition that required open-heart surgery and all the medical procedures and emergencies that have come along with those conditions, the 46-year-old Summer is running up quite a tab for his life.

Yet he's the first one to protest that description. His reason for doing so reflects the positive spirit and attitude that have bolstered him throughout his medical ordeals.

Summer argues he is living on bonus, not borrowed, time.

The phrase comes from a conversation he had years ago with a Ketchikan man. The two talked about mortality after the man spotted a surgical scar on Summer's chest. Summer spoke of his experience with cancer. The man talked about how he almost died in a commercial fishing accident. The man had no use for cliches when it came to explaining their continued existence.

"'Borrowed time, who the hell from?'" Summer said, recounting the conversation. '"This is bonus time.'"

The phrase stuck for Summer.

"At this point I feel like I guess you could step out and and get hit by a bread truck," he said. "... I'm at the point where I'm pretty tickled when wake I up in the morning."

Every day is a bonus day for him, Summer said. It's another chance to spend time with his wife, Mary Ellen, to watch their three daughters grow up, to make his daily coffee shop appearance in Soldotna to visit with friends and write in his journal, and to teach.

"I have oatmeal every morning, that's a Thanksgiving meal," Summer said. "Every day with the girls. ... If I had died when I was 23, I had 23 great years. I had a riot. Now I've done more things than I deserve. I just hope I deserve it."

Strike one

Summer wasn't always so philosophical about life and how he should go about living it. Growing up in Illinois, he was an energetic young man who enjoyed outdoor activities like climbing grain silos at a local dairy farm.

It wasn't until 1981, when he was 23 and graduating from college in Indiana, that Summer had reason to look at his life with any perspective other the eager, invulnerable enthusiasm of youth.

Since he was a college graduate, he soon would be off his parents' medical insurance coverage, so Summer's father talked him into getting a checkup to have a lump in his throat examined. The doctor found an egg-sized tumor in the right side of his neck nestled under his jawbone. Six weeks of tests showed it was non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system.

As cancer goes, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is one of the less threatening types. But medical science being what it was 20-plus years ago, Summer still was in for an ordeal.

A lymphangiogram is one procedure he remembers vividly and tells young nurses about now to see their reactions of disbelief. The procedure was used to image the body's lymph system, and it entailed injecting blue dye between the patient's toes, which traveled through the foot via the lymph system.

An incision was made on top of Summer's feet to see where the lymph fluid was flowing. Once that was determined, oil was injected into the lymph system that traveled through his body and showed up in an X-ray. The procedure left Summer with temporarily blue legs and a tendency toward cold feet, as well as a gruesome story to tell.

Doctors scooped the tumor out of Summer's neck and did exploratory surgery on his abdomen, removing his spleen and taking a biopsy of his liver to see if the cancer had spread. Summer also had six weeks of radiation treatments on his upper chest and neck. Though he had waves of nausea and pain from the surgery, the experience wasn't anything he couldn't endure.

"They weren't too bad, really," he said. "I would hear about chemo people and think how I really didn't have it that bad at all."

 

The Summer family joins hands in prayer with a collection of friends visiting for dinner last week. Bob Summer's cancer treatments in Seattle took their toll on the whole family. Being together again is one of the many things they are thankful for.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

One of the hardest things for him to take wasn't even related to his illness, Summer said. It was seeing kids with cancer having to undergo the same or worse tests and treatments than he did.

"It always bothered me, young people being sick or suffering," he said.

Doctors determined Summer's cancer had not spread beyond his neck, and he was given a clean bill of health. He was left with scars on his neck and abdomen, plus an atrophied neck, from the radiation. He also had a new outlook on the rest of his life.

"I stopped to think, 'I have so much time, what am I going to spend it doing?'" he said. "I wanted to do something worthwhile with my life."

Honorable profession

Working with kids fit the worthwhile bill for Summer.

"It was one of those honorable professions that is worth so much," he said.

 

Kenai Central High School football players crowd around Bob Summer in October to hear more details at the conclusion of a motivational speech Summer gave the team prior to the state championship football game. He masked his head, which was still bald from chemo treatments, with a stick-on red Mohawk that matched the unofficial team haircut.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

With his degree in history, he took a graduate assistant position at the University of New York at Buffalo and started working toward a master's degree in student personnel administration. He met Mary Ellen at the university. She had a degree in physical education and also was working toward a master's in student personnel administration.

After getting married in 1983, the two drove to Alaska to guide rafting trips on the Good News River near Dillingham for the summer. Summer had wanted return to Alaska ever since he spent a summer in college working construction on near Kodiak with a friend. Mary Ellen had never been to the state, but had a background of athletics and outdoors activities and had childhood summers "roughing it" with her family in Southern Ontario, Canada.

"When Bob talked about Alaska, I had never even thought of going to Alaska, really," Mary Ellen said. "... I was pretty much game for anything and it came pretty naturally to me, I think. It was just kind of expanding my horizons."

After river guiding, they got a house-sitting gig on the Kenai Peninsula, where they started substitute teaching.

"Man I loved subbing, it was such a riot," he said. "You had to think on your feet. They're always ready for subs. It stayed in my head as something enjoyable."

The two moved to Fairbanks and worked in administrative positions at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. But the higher up Summer moved in his career, the farther it brought him away from students. He changed tacks and got his teaching certificate.

The Summers moved to Soldotna in 1990, along with their three children who were born in Fairbanks Jessica, Rebekah and Danika. Mary Ellen had always said she wanted to stay home with her kids when she became a mother, so she did that while Bob went to work as an eighth-grade history teacher at Kenai Middle School. He's been an institution at the school since.

 

Summer used other scars of his fight against cancer to explain the importance of teamwork when fighting a strong adversary.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"You have families who have kids come through, and it's really a community thing, like a right of passage coming through my class," he said. "I really feel like a part of the community."

Ken Roser, a physical education teacher at KMS, has worked with Summer since Summer started teaching there. He's sat in on Summer's classes and said it is fascinating to see him interact with kids.

"Bob has an unbelievable ability to relate to all kinds of kids high-end achievers and kids that struggle and all the kids in between," Roser said. "... He's able to combine the practical along with the theoretical, if you will the book stuff along with the real world stuff and just relate to the kids real well,"

Summer's knack for connecting with kids is especially evident in how many former students stay in touch with him, Roser said.

"It's a revolving door at Christmas or at the end of the year, and it's a direct reflection not only on Bob as a teacher but the kids connect with him as a person, because he's real with them. He has a definite interest in each and every one of those kids."

"Mr. Summer" is one of those teachers who everybody knows and everybody remembers, said Michael Scheffert, now a senior at Kenai Central High School.

"It was awesome. It was probably my favorite class," Scheffert said.

From bringing in a gun from the Revolutionary War and firing it off in class (sans bullets, of course) and "coming up with crazy rhymes" to help the students remember the U.S. presidents, Summer was always an energetic teacher, Scheffert said.

 

More than a month later, Kenai Middle School secretary Carole Nolden teases Summer about the "mousy gray" hair that is returning to his head during a visit to the school earlier this month. Summer said he is looking forward to getting back to the classroom again.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

After returning to the peninsula in early October after his recent bout with cancer this summer, the high-spirited history teacher was enlisted to give the KCHS football team a pep talk before they went to the state tournament. Still bald from chemotherapy, Summer figured he'd fit right in with the football players because many had shaved their hair into mohawks or off altogether in preparation for the game. Summer glued a strip of red faux fur to his head to fit in even better.

"It was like the perfect inspirational speech before going up there because a lot of the kids on the team had him as a teacher and knew he was a great person, and if he could overcome (cancer) ... we could go out there and play football for two hours and win our third straight state football title," Scheffert said.

"It was a great thing for him to do to take out of his time to come talk to us to tell everything that he's overcome and kind of put life into perspective for us."

View from the top

A chance for Summer to gain some lofty perspective came in 1997, when he decided that just because his body had been infected with cancer at one point was no reason not to expect it to accomplish great things.

Summer has always been athletic and an outdoorsman. His well-worn Subaru has long been a fixture in the parking lot of the notoriously steep Skyline Trail in the Kenai Mountains outside Sterling. In 1997 he decided to take his hiking a step make that many steps further.

He decided to climb Denali.

Not one to let an opportunity go unembellished, Summer decided to make the climb into a fund-raiser benefiting kids with cancer who want to go to outdoors camps designed with their medical needs in mind.

 

Ken Roser pretends to comfort Summer as he fakes a bloody nose in front of a gym full of suddenly quiet students during a visit to the school. The students had been throwing balls at Summer in a game of "turkey shoot."

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"It gets them out where they can be kids," Summer said. "I know how wonderful it is to get out of the hospital."

He submitted an announcement to a climbing magazine that called other cancer survivors to his cause. Applications poured in from around the country. Summer wanted to show kids that people not only survived cancer, but went on to climb the tallest mountain in the United States.

As is usual with Summer's grand endeavors, Mary Ellen took up the task of organizing it. She says Bob has always been the idea guy and climber while she has been the support staff.

"She never gets any recognition," Bob Summer said of his wife. "All I had to do was hike a few miles up to the top of the mountain. Woo-hoo. Meanwhile she's the one working her butt off."

The nine climbers and three guides on the team agreed to provide their own gear, pay their own fees and try to raise $10,000 each for the kids going to camp, mainly by auctioning off donations from gear manufacturers.

In June 1997 the team made its ascent. Every member of the team reached the summit, and the effort raised enough money for more than 300 kids to go to camp.

"It was, I don't know, something else," Summer said. "You know how you say you write scripts? I could not have written this one any better."

But this script's plot was not done twisting yet.

Strike two

 

A book about New Zealand's Mount Aspiring is close at hand as Summer works in his journal during a daily visit to the Kaladi Bros. coffee shop in Soldotna. He started planning a fund-raising climb of the mountain while he was still sick in bed this summer.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

During the McKinley expedition, Summer's brother, Tom, a surgeon who volunteered to be the team's doctor, gave Summer a checkup and was concerned about a murmur in his heart. Summer had already known he had a heart irregularity. It was pronounced enough that one of his oldest daughter, Jessica, could lay on his chest and tell him his heart sounded like an owl hooting.

At the 11,000-foot elevation base camp, Tom wouldn't dismiss the murmur and made his brother promise he would see a specialist as soon as they were off the mountain. Summer later saw a surgeon in Los Angeles, who told him the radiation treatments he underwent to treat his cancer when he was 23 had calcified the aortic valve in his heart. Summer had never heard of this being a possible side effect from radiation treatments. He asked if the condition was serious.

The doctor told him the valve was "like a rock pile," Summer said.

Six months after standing on the summit of the 20,310-foot Mount McKinley, Summer lay in a hospital bed in Los Angeles at about 200 feet above sea level having open-heart surgery. He came out of it with a positive prognosis that the valve wouldn't need to be replaced. He also had a new scar that met up with his abdominal scar and traversed the rest of his chest.

"After the second hit, it was one of those deals where (I thought), if I knew I didn't have long to live, what would I do?" he said.

Summer decided to take a year off and travel around the world with his family. In 2001, they started by putting 26,000 miles on their van zig-zagging across the Lower 48, then flying to South America to traverse that continent. They also explored Fiji, Australia, New Zealand and Thailand. They flew to Athens, Greece, and meandered through Europe.

 

Wearing a 25-pound backpack, Summer makes his way up a short grade along Kobuk Street during his daily trip for coffee. "The first time I walked down here, man, was I beat," Summer said. But the short walk, slight grade and light pack are a good start to the climb ahead.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"It was just really cool," Summer said. "When they told me I had cancer this time, the first thing that went through my mind was, 'I'm glad I had taken that trip.'"

Strike three, but he's not out

Summer's second battle with cancer began at the end of last school year. His stomach was bothering him, but he figured it was from the stress of all the year-end activities at school, including the preparation of keynote speeches for eighth grade and Kenai high school graduation ceremonies.

After school was done, he went on a black bear hunting trip with two friends and his oldest daughter, Jessica, to the lower Kenai Peninsula on Memorial Day weekend. The first day at camp he felt worse. He got winded just unloading the boat and got a panicky feeling trying to breathe that he equated with being at high altitudes.

He also felt a lump in his abdomen.

When morning came and he still didn't feel better, he and Jessica headed back to town. A doctor ordered him to the hospital, where a blood test and CT scan offered grim news. It was cancer, and a nasty tumor at that. This time Summer had a Burkitt's lymphoma a rare and extremely aggressive cancer.

"The blood sample said I had half the blood I was supposed to. The thing was bleeding me out," Summer said.

After passing out in his bathroom and being rushed to a hospital, an oncologist in Anchorage decided there was no time to waste.

"The doctor said, 'This is moving too fast, it's too aggressive, you've lost too much blood,'" he said.

Summer and his wife were flown immediately to the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. The doctor there prescribed six months of such a strong level of chemotherapy that Summer was warned it could kill him.

There was no "maybe" with the tumor.

"The doctor said, 'The tumor will kill you. We need to get right on it,'" Summer said.

Summer was presented with a good-news, bad-news outlook for the treatment. The more aggressive Burkitt's lymphoma is, the more it tends to react to chemotherapy. But the faster the tumor dies off from the chemo, the greater the chance Summer's kidneys would shut down temporarily or, perhaps, permanently.

The tumor did react strongly to the chemo and Summer's kidneys shut down in June. The fluid he retained jolted his weight from 155 to 212 pounds. He had to go on dialysis for about three days.

Summer said he doesn't remember much of this episode, but he's pretty sure it's the closest he came to death this summer.

Mary Ellen sat through all of her husband's medical procedures and cared for him when he was out of the hospital between rounds of chemo a tall order for someone who was a little squeamish.

"Before being pregnant, any time I had blood drawn I would pass out on the floor," she said. "But Bob wanted me in the room with him."

 

After a previous fight with cancer Summer organized a climb up Mount McKinley in 1997 to raise funds for camps for sick children. He is pictured then in the mountain's base camp with the group's flag. The 2007 trip will have similar goals.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The history teacher in Summer also wanted everything documented, so Mary Ellen often found herself behind a digital camera, photographing things like spinal taps and his Hickman catheter a device implanted in his chest so medicine could be administered without needing multiple shots or IVs.

Mary Ellen had visited her sister when she was treated for breast cancer, had been through Summer's open-heart surgery with him and was dealing with her father being ill at the same time Summer was but this round of cancer was a much more intense experience for her.

"This was my first time being there on a daily basis and with someone as close to you as you can be to someone," she said.

Summer wasn't able to do much beyond concentrate on getting better, so Mary Ellen took over all the duties of the family and called the girls every night.

"I felt an incredible responsibility in being the one who wasn't sick," she said. "... I told the girls to imagine I had three boxes on a shelf Bob, the kids and my dad, and I really could only take down one and handle it at a time."

The girls, now 17, 15 and 14, stayed busy enough working at a set-net site with the family they were staying with, George and Robin Nyce of Kenai, during the summer that it helped them not dwell on what their dad was going through, Mary Ellen said.

"They had a lot going on so they didn't wallow in it. But they were realistic about it. They knew Papa might die, Papa might not come back," she said.

Being away from his kids was a strain for Summer, as well.

"When I was in the hospital, what I really hoped to get back to was finding out about their lives and talking like a family," he said.

A brief visit from the kids while Summer was in between rounds of chemo did a world of good for him and the rest of the family, Mary Ellen said. Friends in Smammamish, Wash., Cam and Dawn Pollock, opened their home to the Summers for four months while Bob was in and out of the hospital.

"We could be all together in their house for a couple days," Mary Ellen said. "Even though Bob was sick and weak, it was wonderful to be a family in a house again."

Getting out of the hospital and back home for good was a goal that kept Summer motivated throughout his three rounds of chemo.

"I thought I'd try real hard, do everything I could," he said. "... I figured, the sooner I get done, the sooner I get home."

He took to walking laps up and down the halls of the hospital ward. Figuring it took 10 laps to a mile, he'd carry 10 paper clips with him and leave one on a crash bar at the end of the hallway after each lap.

"That's the thing about Bob he's so disciplined, whatever they told him to do, he did it," Mary Ellen said. "He seemed in such good care and hands and being in good physical shape, he came back quickly from everything. ... I thought if anyone in the world had a chance, it was Bob."

As his treatment progressed, Summer got closer to his goal of going home. At first he was told it would be January before he could leave. As he continued to bounce back quickly from the chemo, the prediction became a reverse list of holidays: He could leave by Christmas, then Thanksgiving, then Halloween.

"I don't know if I'm good at much in life, but I guess I'm good at recovery," he said.

After his fifth round of chemo, Summer went in for a CT scan the first week of October. It was clear, showing no trace of the tumor or even any scar tissue. He and Mary Ellen went home and surprised their kids, as well as many of their friends who had spent the last few months keeping a grim eye on the obituary announcements.

"If I had written this script, I figured I'd have to have surgery. I didn't have to have any of it. I dodged all these bullets," he said.

"It was pretty wild to be back."

Still batting

Now that he's home, Summer fills his days with his family, friends and continued recovery. He's had too many reminders of how short life can be to pass up opportunities to spend time with those he loves.

"People are important," he said. "You're lying there thinking you may be dying. You're not thinking, 'Gee, I wish I had more square footage in my house.' ... That's not what you think about. I was thinking about a situation where I was too hard on my daughter and wished I could go back and do it again."

He's gained five pounds since he's been back in Soldotna and his hair and moustache are growing in, no longer leaving him looking like a cross between Gandhi and David Letterman's band leader, Paul Schaeffer, as was the running joke while he was in the hospital.

He isn't totally in the clear of cancer yet, since Burkitt's lymphomas are known to reappear. Summer said he has a 60-40 chance of having a relapse, with slightly better odds that it won't return. He'll have CT scans every three months starting in January for the next two years to keep watch on his condition.

Summer isn't letting the specter of what he may have to face months or years down the road keep him from taking full advantage of life now. He's hoping to start teaching again in January and is exercising daily.

The body that once climbed Mount McKinley now is up to walking two miles a day with a 25-pound pack and doing three pull-ups on rock climbing grips.

"It sounds real impressive, but there's four hours between them," Summer said.

 

"That's the thing about Bob he's so disciplined, whatever they told him to do, he did it," Mary Ellen said. "He seemed in such good care and hands and being in good physical shape, he came back quickly from everything. ... I thought if anyone in the world had a chance, it was Bob."

Photo by M. Scott Moon

He's got a long way to go before he gets back into his Mount McKinley-climbing shape again, and only a few years to do it, since he's already planning another mountain climb to benefit kids with cancer who want to go to camp. This time the target is a nearly 10,000-foot peak in New Zealand called Mount Aspiring during Christmas break 2007.

Summer said he doesn't know whether to attribute his continued existence to luck, a miracle of modern medical science, heavenly intervention or some other explanation. Life is a mystery, and it's the adventure of facing the unknown that Summer says he likes.

"Why did I make it and other people don't? Why do kids suffer? ... The bottom line is your perspective. I'm very comfortable not understanding why God does things. If you really trust that God is a God you can trust, it helps," he said.

Mary Ellen said she believes God has a purpose for everyone. She doesn't know what God's purpose for her husband may be, but it might have something to do with him being an example to others for how to live.

"I don't know why Bob has had cancer twice and open-heart surgery," she said. "I don't know if it's for him or for those around him, but he's handled it very well.

"I just am incredibly thankful for the people in this community, not just for this time in our lives, but or the whole 15 years we've been here."

Summer said he is thankful for his family, friends and that his life has been as good as it's been.

"I felt pretty good when I thought I was going to die," he said. "I felt I had done a lot with (my kids). Mainly, I want to really concentrate on how to handle myself with the girls. Just be a good husband, a good parent, a good son, a good friend, try to really make a little dent in my part of the world do something for this community that has done so much for us.

I can't believe how good I've had it."



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