Row Bob Row Revisited…

 Battling the Waves & Cancer

(republished from July 2006 edition of our magazine, Palm Coast Lifestyles)

somewhere on the water there will be two white row boats, slicing through the waves, less vulnerable to the elements than one would assume because of their occupants’ adamant wish to beat the odds…

Two slender row boats were gingerly pulled out of the water at Palm Coast Marina. The boats were identical, save for the names “Attitude” and “Inner Voice”. Palm Coast was one of the stops in a 200 mile journey from Melbourne to Jacksonville. A journey designed to help fight a rare form of blood cancer.

Bob & Cork on the water...

Bob Lynch, one of the two boaters, looks like an average 50-something year-old, except that he is entirely bald and sports a walrus moustache that accentuates his grin. I am loathe to call any person ordinary, but relying on the standard details, Bob’s life could seem entirely ordinary. Bob grew up between homes in Cape Cod and Fort Lauderdale, though the accent is definitely Cape. After college, Bob moved to Florida for good, establishing a modest career, and rowing every chance he got for exercise and for the ability to reflect on the day and relegate it to the past. He was happily married, had close friends and was doing well enough to not worry about much. Life was maybe not grand, but definitely good. At a routine physical in 1995 Bob was told he had an incurable disease with a life expectancy of 3-7 years if he is lucky, and even that would require multiple sessions of chemo therapy. The name of the disease was Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia, a cancer of the blood and immune system so rare that is affects only 6.1 men per million. The good news was that this type of cancer attacked slowly. The bad news was that the medical community did not know enough about either the causes or treatment options. There is always the chemo, indiscriminately attacking all cells in the hopes to bring down the enemy. After 18 months of chemo the high levels of a dangerous protein in his blood went down, the hemoglobin went up, and mathematically speaking, his blood looked much better. Physiologically speaking, Bob was feeling very much like the enemy was himself, and that the all out war was killing him, so he stopped taking chemo against medical advice and hoped for the best.

One day he realized that he missed rowing and decided to give it a try. He rowed only a few yards, and his wife, Sue, had to pull him out of the boat as he was too weak to make it on his own. He could hardly stand up, yet there was that glimmer in the eyes; a tiny ray of hope. Every day from that point Bob would row for as long as he could handle it, eventually taking trips that were a few hours long. He noticed that he was feeling better, though the blood tests indicated otherwise. His numbers were off the charts, and according to his doctors he should not have survived with protein levels being where they were. As if to spite them, Bob was very much alive and rowing every day now. At 47 years of age, Bob was not ready to give up. He was too much in love with Sue, and the thought of leaving her made him angry. He smiles now, when explaining to me the emotional roller coaster that they were both on. Bob turns 59 this year.

One day, he was having lunch with a friend who nonchalantly asked: “Now that you are going to die, Bob, is there anything that you didn’t get a chance to do that you wish you had?” There was that something that came clear into view, impossible now to achieve… Rowing the length of the Florida Keys. Almost a hundred miles of rowing on the open water was hardly the task for a cancer patient, but it was so tempting.

Bob recalls asking his friend if he would sponsor him by the mile, and got an amused ‘yes’. That trip, Bob raised $30,000. Suddenly, there was a goal.  Until that moment, rowing was just something Bob had always done, almost a matter of habit, like jogging or biking for some, and while thoroughly enjoyable on a good day, it was rowing for the sake of rowing.  The thought of combining this passion with helping fight cancer quickly progressed to a plan of action.  Bob would row the entire East Coast of Florida and get people to sponsor him by the mile, with all proceeds going towards finding the cure.  This current trip, which started on the 11th anniversary of that first diagnosis, is the fourth survivor row for Bob and completes the first quest, spanning over 700 miles.

Bob opens a bottle of cold beer, a small reward after a difficult day of rowing and examines his newly acquired blisters.  Sue, the group’s self-appointed nurse, skillfully treats and bandages the wounds as Bob, wincing, denounces any claim to being a hero: “I really am just a big baby when it comes to pain,” he says, as his wife nods in ascent.  The other member of the group, Cork Friedman, puts away his digital video camera, and joins in the conversation.  Bob met Cork by chance, while rowing of course, some six years ago, and Cork has been accompanying Bob on his expeditions ever since.  A videographer by trade, Cork tapes their journeys and is working on a documentary on Bob.  He is next in line for blister treatment, some of which he claims formed a topographical map of Florida on the one place he prefers we don’t photograph (caused by friction with the seat). It elicits a hearty chuckle from Bob, as do most things nowadays.

He laughs unabashedly through the entire interview as I struggle to reconcile the man and the circumstance.

Sue drops the first aid kit into the back of their yellow Xterra and helps secure the boats to the trailer. When Bob and Cork are on the water she trails them by land, arriving at the next destination before they do, and spends the time in between nursing their wounds, repairing their equipment and preparing the travelers for the next leg of the journey. She doesn’t seem to mind this behind the scenes role one bit. Seeing Bob doing what he loves is rewarding enough, and, given that so far he has beaten the odds by quite a few years, she expects that he will be around for a while longer. There are of course those moments of uncertainty when they scrutinize hundreds of numbers of the latest blood work printout. Bob will inevitably get a call from his oncologist urging him to do chemo again. He tells me that should he get worse, he will consider that option, but he doesn’t put too much stock into it. Why he is still alive may be a mystery for his doctors, he tells me, but he doesn’t mind that.

There is optimism in Bob’s voice and his whole demeanor. He tells me that he does not think of himself as someone who has cancer. He tells me that fear is capable of killing one faster than any cancer could, and he tries not to be afraid.

If anything, he is afraid of being too sick to row, but for now, he will be doing this for as long as he can.

They mention future plans that include rowing to Maine. I tell them that I think of it as crazy. Bob wipes the sweat from his face with a bandana, takes another gulp of beer and proceeds to give me a bear hug, content now that I questioned his sanity. So far, Bob Lynch and company raised over $110,000 towards finding the cure, and they hope that maybe Bob will be one of the people that money helps. In the mean time, Bob takes every free moment he has to talk to people all over the state about his battle with cancer in the hopes of inspiring people to fight and not give in to fear, no matter how grim the diagnosis.

The next leg of this journey was slated to start from the Palm Coast Marina in the morning, so the weary travelers set off to a hotel for a good meal and a night’s rest.

Next morning, Bob and company pulled up to the ramp and within twenty minutes the two boats and their passengers were in the water rowing due north. We noted how helpless and small the two boats looked compared to motorized giants going by at full speed. They rowed expertly, and Sue did not seem the least bit worried about the boys, as she affectionately called them. She was already examining the map that will take her to their next stop at Devil’s Elbow.

This row was almost over, and while we were told that there would definitely be more to come in the future, they tend not to row through the same place twice, so we may not see them in Palm Coast again. But somewhere on the water there will be two white row boats, slicing through the waves, less vulnerable to the elements than one would assume because of their occupants’ adamant wish to beat the odds.

If you would like to get to know Bob better, visit his site at: rowbobrow.com

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