Mullen, P H

Nine months after lung cancer surgery, author P.H. Mullen has returned to swimming and is growing a little bit stronger each day.

“Survive and Thrive.” It’s an apt name for this new regular column, which focuses on people who have endured serious setbacks and used our great sport of swimming to survive…to adapt…and to thrive.

We’ll talk about everyday people-folks like you and me-celebrating life and their passion for churning through blue water.

Life is funny. The things you often think matter most-your best times, the size of your retirement portfolio, the prestige of your job or address-don’t matter a bit. They’re just ornaments giving your life color.

What matters is how fully you live in the face of stiff challenges…how well you rise to setbacks…how willing you are to adapt to changing realities.

In this column, you’ll read about swimmers such as South African Natalie Du Toit, a 20-year-old who lost her left leg below the knee in a scooter A accident in 2001 and who last autumn competed in-are you ready to comprehend this?-the 2004 Short Course World Championships in Indianapolis.

Now that’s thriving!

You’ll read about septuagenarian Masters relearning butterfly after suffering paralyzing strokes.

And heart-attack patients winning Masters nationals.

And tough-as-steel kids making weekly workouts in the face of significant illnesses.

Does this sound like anyone you know? Someone swimming in the next lane? If so, let us know.

We want to hear it.


With this issue, we’ll start personal. Last spring, my doctor called with some test results.

She said, “Sit down.”

I laughed and said, “Relax, except for this weird cough I feel fantastic.”

It was true. That morning I had swum a 4,500-meter workout at my beloved Santa Clara Swim Club in California, partly leading the fastest lane. My intervals were nearly the same as they’d been in college 15 years earlier. I’d recently run my first marathon. Fitness and me: we walked hand-in-hand. I was 35 years old with two baby girls.

My doctor repeated, “Sit down.” I did. In a roundabout way it came out: I had lung cancer.

The world fell away And it kept falling.

You cannot know what a privilege it is to get up early in the morning and swim several thousand yards with your muscles burning until the day you take your seat in the waiting room of a cancer ward.

Today it’s nine months later. Surprise, I’m not dead.

That’s a remarkable statementbecause lung cancer wants to take you out. It spreads through your body and by the time you realize its existence, it’s often too late. In the “Swim Meet of Life,” it’s like being DQed on deck before the race starts.

But my tumor-an iceberg-shaped creature the size of a ping pong ballwas a neuroendocrine, a rare slowgrower. They saw it; they caught it.

They entered through my back, a surgery called a thoracotomy, and they chopped out the whole area, leaving inside me too many staples to count. Tests say I’m clean. For now, it looks like I wasn’t DQed after all.


What happens when they remove half your lung?

Here are two crazy facts you’ll only read here:

* First, you’ll never be fully balanced in the water again, as your body wants to bob on the side with the healthy lung that holds most of the air.

* Second, you’ll have trouble swimming in a crowded lane without getting seasick because your chest is now a half-packed suitcase. Waves slosh your insides around.

These are wonderful problems to have. They say I’m living.

I was told to prepare for a non-athletic life post-surgery The night before they cut me, I drove to the pool. In the dark, I swam a single 50-meter butterfly and got out. All I wanted: one last feeling of that beautiful, fluid motion. I kissed the water goodbye.

Then afterward, it was determined the tumor had apparently not spread. I got through the ICU, the morphine drips, the repeatedly collapsing lung. I went back to the pool. I said, “I’ll never swim any of my times again. Do I care?”

Day one, I managed two strokes. I saw stars and gasped for breath. I did a little more every day After two months, I could do a mile.

Three months after that, I was watching the Olympics on TV. Michael Phelps swam 17 races. In the same order, I swam them also, stopping as I needed on the walls.

Michael set the world record in the 400 meter IM in 4:08. It took me 8:30, waaay slower than it used to. But it’s a time I’m darn proud of.

It’s no longer about the time. It’s no longer about winning or losing. (Really, was it ever?)

It’s about taking one stroke after the other. It’s about growing a little bit stronger each day.



Here’s one of my favorite recipes. Combining fish and spinach, it’s a great meal if you want to eat a healthy-and delicious-meal.

Lime-Scented Orange Roughy and Spinach

1 T Olive oil

1 c thinly sliced carrot

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 t salt, divided

1 (10-oz) pckg baby spinach

1/3 cup sliced green onions

1/4 c mirin (sweet rice wine)

1 t grated lime peel

3 T fresh lime juice

1 t grated peeled fresh ginger (may use 11 ground ginger)

4 (6-oz) orange roughy fillets

1/4 t freshly ground red pepper

4 lime wedges

* Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

* Heat oil in large skillet over medium high heat. Add carrot, sauté 2 minutes or until tender. Add garlic, sauté 15 seconds. Add 1/2 t salt and spinach; sauté 2 minutes or until spinach melts.

* Combine 1 t salt, green onions, mirin, rind, lime juice and ginger in a separate bowl.

* Fold 4 16×12-inch sheets heavy-duty foil in half, lengthwise. Open foil and place 1/2 c spinach mixture in the center of each sheet. Top with a fillet and drizzle mirin mixture evenly over each fillet; sprinkle with pepper.

* Tightly seal edges. Place foil packets in a single layer on a jelly roll pan. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes or until fish flakes easily. Serve with lime wedge.

Calories 221 (20% fat); fat 4.9 g protein 27.6 g carbs 13.3 g fiber 3.4 g; chol 34 mg; iron 2.5 mg sodium 470 mg calcium 138 mg.

(Reprinted with permission from the Jan. 15, 2005 issue of the VMST Newsletter.)

P.H. Mullen, a Dartmouth graduate who once swam the English Channel, is the author of “Gold in the Water.”

Copyright Sports Publications, Inc. Mar 2005

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