After cancer surgery, he’s back to doing the things he loves

January 4th, 2019

Bob Hunt has five sons and he’s made a priority of doing something special with each one.

He’s gone snowboarding, refereed hockey games, competed in triathlons and completed 100-mile bike rides with his sons.

A photo of Bob Hunt
After cancer surgery, Bob Hunt, 76, takes a break during a long bike ride with one of his five sons.

Bob, 76, and his wife, Carol, who had back surgery five years ago, swim laps a few times a week at the Briargate YMCA to stay healthy. Bob and Carol aren’t the kind of people who like to sit around.

One of Bob’s favorites is cycling through North Cheyenne Canon Park in Colorado Springs. A couple years ago, he and a buddy had one of their best rides ever – nothing but the blue sky, shimmering aspen trees and the exhilaration of the wind in his face. Bob was somewhat bothered that day, though, by what he called a weird, bloating sensation in his stomach.

“I told Carol, ‘if I don’t feel better in a day or two, I’m going to go to the doctor.’ I said, ‘I must have the stomach flu or something.’ ’’

Visiting the family doctor

A couple days later, he saw his family doctor. His doctor started out thinking Bob had some kind of stomach disorder. He had x-rays to see if he had gallstones, a stool test, and a blood test, which showed low hemoglobin. Then his doctor asked for a CT scan followed by a referral to a gastroenterologist, who wanted a colonoscopy and endoscopy. Those tests showed Bob had a blockage in his stomach. A biopsy was done.

Bob had a follow-up appointment with the gastroenterologist. He dropped Carol off at the Y, thinking he’d be prescribed an iron supplement or something to help his gut. Bob thought it was peculiar when the doctor asked, “Where’s your nice wife?’’ Later, when the doctor told Bob he had cancer in his duodenal, the first section of the small intestine, he understood why.

“That’s the moment. It’s a moment,’’ Bob said, understating the seismic news.

Meeting the specialists

His doctor explained that Bob would have to see a surgeon at UCHealth. The cancer had also spread to his lymph nodes. That’s when he was introduced to Dr. Patrick Burns, a general surgeon, and a few days later, Dr. Geetika Srivastava, an oncologist at the UCHealth Cancer Center – Memorial Hospital Central.

After collaborating, Dr. Burns and Dr. Srivastava decided Bob should have chemotherapy to kill the cancer in the lymph nodes.

Srivastava explained that the tumor caused an obstruction in a critical location, and it was hard on Bob. He lost about 30 pounds and felt terrible. He had no appetite and couldn’t sleep. His stomach was distended and Bob had some doubts about whether he’d return to the life he loves.

“I thought, ‘This is it. You know, I’ve had a nice life.’ ’’

By December 2017, the bloating that Bob had experienced on his bike ride intensified. He was in intense pain and his doctor admitted him to UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central and two pounds of fluid was removed from his abdominal area.

A barium X-ray showed that Bob was having trouble moving fluid from his stomach to his intestines. Because of the location of Bob’s tumor, doctors planned to do a surgical bypass and reroute the path from Bob’s stomach to his intestines.

Bob Hunt and his son stand in the snow as they hold their boards.
One of Bob Hunt’s favorite activities is snowboarding. After surgery for cancer, he returned to doing the things he loves.

“He (Dr. Burns) told me the day of the surgery, ‘We will do this bypass and when I have you opened up, I’ll take a look and see if there is anything else that I can do,’ ’’ Bob said.

A soft-spoken doctor

Bob said he appreciated Dr. Burns’ soft-spoken, but direct way. And he felt as though his physicians got to know him and knew him as a person, not his disease. Before surgery, a radiologist had learned of Bob’s love for technology. The radiologist told Bob that he had talked the anesthesiologist into keeping him awake before surgery so he could see some of the highly sophisticated robotic technology that is used to perform surgeries (but not Bob’s).

“He brought me in there and showed me all that stuff, and it was absolutely amazing. Then he said, ‘Time’s up,’ ’’ and delivered the anesthetic.

Carol sat anxiously in the waiting room during the January 2018 surgery waiting for news. Then, Dr. Burns came bounding in the room, full of enthusiasm.

Once Bob was in surgery, Dr. Burns connected the small bowel to the stomach. He also discovered that the tumor was located in the distal region of the stomach, “and at that point, we were able to remove most of the tumor,’’ Dr. Burns said.

“He has done well from that surgery, but he still has disease,’’ Dr. Burns said.

In recovery, Carol told Bob that during the bypass surgery, surgeons were able to remove the 3.2-centimeter tumor. The next morning, Dr. Burns came to Bob’s hospital room to talk to him about the surgery.

“He’s one of these unusual people that you meet in life,’’ Bob said of Dr. Burns. “He is so humble, so soft-spoken and so kind.’’

Bob said his care during his hospital stay was extraordinary from doctors, nurses and even a housekeeper who offered kindness and respect.

“There’s a woman who works in housekeeping in the oncology department named Yolanda and she is an amazing person,’’ he said. “Every day she would come and say, ‘How are you feeling today?’ And she would get a nice warm washcloth and put it on my face.

“And when she left, she’d say, ‘I hope I meet you again but it is going to be at Wal-Mart,’ ’ ’ he said. “They were amazing, absolutely amazing people.’’

Doctors placed Bob on oral chemotherapy. He had no problems with the first dose, but he had a bad reaction to the second. He started to lose skin on his hands and the bottom of his feet. That was at the end of April, and he hasn’t been back on chemotherapy since then. Tests show that the chemotherapy has reduced the cancer in the lymph nodes, Dr. Srivastava said.

Bob said that he learned to have courage in battling illness from his wife, Carol, who had spine surgery five years ago.

“She wasn’t going to let that get the best of her,’’ Bob said.

“I have a plate in my back because my spine was bent, and I had nerves lying on my spine. It was very painful. I waited about a year because I didn’t want to give up the skiing and all those things that I would have to give up when I had surgery. I waited, but the pain got so bad. ‘’

After the back surgery, Bob took Carol to her follow-up appointments. On the second or third appointment, after surgery, Carol asked the doctor if she had to keep using a walker.

A photo of Dr. Geetika Srivastava
Dr. Geetika Srivastava

The doctor said it was up to her.

“Well, I’m tripping over it,’’ Carol said.

When Bob and Carol drove away from the doctor’s office, Carol told Bob: “Go to Goodwill.’’

“Why?’’ he asked.

“Cause that’s where the walker’s going,’’ she said.

Carol began swimming and walking around the track at the YMCA, with Bob encouraging.

Back to doing the things he loves

Following Bob’s surgery in January 2018, he was able to get back in March and April to the things that he likes to do: swim, referee hockey games and ride his bike. His son asked him to do a 100-mile bike ride in Texas and Bob wasn’t sure whether he’d be able to do the ride, but it had exits at 28 miles, 46 miles and 65 miles.

“It costs the same whether you finish or don’t finish, so I said, ‘Let’s sign up.’ ’’

Bob started the ride June 23 with his son and 40 miles down the road, his feet, altered by the chemotherapy, were killing him and he decided to sit down and rest.

“I know I’ll be OK,’’ he told his son. He drank some water, caught his breath and got back on the bicycle and rode another 22 miles. In total, he logged 100 kilometers, nearly 62 miles.

“At first I was unhappy with that and then I thought, ‘Wow!’ ’’ The ride gave him a mental boost — confidence to return to the things he loves with his sons.

“So then I got back to doing all of the stuff that I do,’’ Bob said. “I referee ice hockey, snowboard, I ride bicycles, swim three times a week and there are very few things that I don’t do. We live a life that you dream about.’’

In the coming months, physicians will continue to monitor Bob’s health. An image shows that he currently has a spot near his kidney.

“Given the cancer was metastatic to begin with … we will be doing a scan every 3 to 4 months,’’ Dr. Srivastava said. If the cancer recurs, chemotherapy, or local therapy such as radiation or surgical removal, could provide a palliative benefit.

“Mr. Hunt has done remarkably well,’’ Dr. Srivastava said. “He is extremely active, in great physical shape. I feel certain that how well he has taken care of his body and his positive attitude has played a role in him having done so exceptionally well.’’

Bob said he is grateful for his physicians and other care givers.

“As difficult of an experience as it is, it is something that I have learned and grown from a whole bunch,’’ he said. “I just feel so good about people. ‘’

About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.