The first time they went on a bike ride together, Dick Deming wanted to show his new friend Bob Irving his new toy. The CyberKnife, it was called. As Dr. Deming – Medical Director at Mercy Cancer Center – toured his group of sweaty, spandex-clad friends around the oncology unit, he explained that the futuristic-looking contraption was the latest in technology for treating cancer with radiation. It could attack a tumor with a combination of lasers from all angles.
“Pretty cool,” everyone thought before riding on.
“I like being your friend,” Irving would later tell Deming. “But I don’t ever want to be one of your patients.”
The friendship continued and both Irving and Deming found themselves as members of the “Y Rats,” a circle of people from around Des Moines who literally wait for the doors to open to the downtown YMCA. It was initially Irving’s sister, Debbie, who introduced the energetic, entertaining doctor to both her brother Bobby and her husband Scott. It didn’t take long until Deming was invited to bingo night on Christmas Eve at the Irving’s home, led by the legendary Mama Donna – a nickname Deming would later give to Bob and Debbie’s charismatic mother who likes to tell a story or two.
“He’s kind of like another sibling,” Debbie explained about Deming.
One morning, as the Y Rats were embarking on a 5:15 a.m. jog, Bob asked Dr. Deming to feel his throat to check out what he assumed were swollen glands.
About six months after telling the doctor he never wanted to be his patient, Bob Irving’s care was in the hands of Dr. Deming to begin the fall of 2008. Irving had tonsil cancer, and needed an abusive series of treatments to beat it out of him.
Irving convinced doctors to let him ride in RAGBRAI – the annual bike ride across Iowa – that summer before beginning the grueling gauntlet. Three operations, three chemo sessions and 35 rounds of radiation had Irving looking like he’d been hit by 10,000 bicycles.
The second dose of chemo on top of radiation was the worst he can recall.
“That one just laid me out,” Irving said.
He was in the hospital for three weeks to recovery with a feeding tube and all. He couldn’t swallow. He lost 40 pounds. Yet he wore funny hats for every treatment and fought like hell.
“He was making other people laugh to take their minds off what they were going through,” Mama Donna said. “He never wanted me to worry. He would tell me he was going to be okay. I always wanted to be strong for him and save the tears for later.”
Irving knew he was in good hands with Dr. Deming.
“He’s a good friend and he wouldn’t let anything happen to me,” Irving said. “And he doesn’t know how he could’ve faced Mama Donna had I died.”
The Y group wasn’t quite the same with Bob in the hospital, and Debbie and Scott and the rest of the gang hoped to observe a speedy recovery.
“Bob’s always been the strong one of all of us,” his sister Debbie said. “We just knew that we couldn’t let him go.”
Although Irving’s treatment was about as rough as it gets, he was on his feet relatively quickly.
“I tried to get back as soon as I could, and by spring I was rollin’ pretty well,” he recalled.
Irving competed in a triathlon that June and rode RAGBRAI again in July. He began to feel like his physical self again (which is in the form of a 6’4” muscular frame) but he noticed a change in his perspective.
“Cancer has made me look at my life in a way in that I maybe need to take a little more control of my life,” Irving said. “Life is short. I’ve gone through life fifty years and you have the feeling of not being expendable, but you are, and sometimes that really hits home when you find out there’s a chance that you could go pretty quick.”
Irving rode across the entire state of Iowa in one day with Dr. Deming and a group of nine others last year. At times when Irving does something risky, his friend and now his doctor would joke, “How many times do you need me to save your life?”
A lot of changes have taken place since Irving survived cancer. He and his son are on speaking terms again. He’s gone through a divorce. His wheels are turning and he wants to live freely and see the world.
“I may just take off one of these days,” he says one evening with a beer and a sandwich in front of him and a lingering dose of wanderlust in his mind.
He’ll at least wait until his 10-year-old dog kicks the bucket.
“He’ll probably hang on forever,” Irving says.
You can’t blame the pooch. It’s just taking after its owner.