The scene is breathtaking. A thousand swimmers, lined up along the shore off the Cayman Islands, all behind a rope. The air horn sounds, the rope drops and all those arms and legs take off at once in to the Caribbean Sea for a one-mile swim race.
Allan Ripple. “I got that shirt at the Lombardi Cancer Walk which was my first after treatment. On the back it has “Survivor” across the shoulders and then the Lombardi quote, “Its not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.” (Photo: Andrea Farr.)
The first time Allan Ripple completed the one-mile Flowers Sea Swim in 2018 he did it in 33 minutes and 8 seconds and took 209th place out of 774.
This June, he was faster – 28:47, taking 148th out of 1,000 (finishing behind 19 Olympians).
If that’s not impressive enough for a 56-year-old mortgage banker from the Upper East Side, then get this:
Nearly three years ago he was checked into the hospital, getting treated for two different cancers, and getting the nastiest chemotherapy cocktail they make.
“Alan is an absolute stud. This guy is like unbelievable,” said Ripple’s doctor, Nicholas Webber. “The type of athlete that people everywhere should look up to. I would make him talk to every single one of my patients with cancer if I could.
“But he’s too busy swimming…”
Allan Ripple’s medals from completing two Flowers Sea Swim races. The one-mile swim raises money for cancer research. (Photo: Allan Ripple)
It was just a normal day of getting ready for work when Ripple felt a small lump on the back of his right leg just above the knee in July of 2016. He got the scans and the biopsy. The doctors at St. Luke’s Hospital diagnosed him with undifferentiated pleomorphic sarcoma. Ripple started treatment with Webber, an expert at Aurora Cancer Care.
The news came out of left field. Not that fit and healthy people can’t get cancer, of course, but Ripple had been a competitive swimmer since the age of 5. He’d pushed himself in the pools of West Bend swim club as a youth, the Schroeder Aquatic Center, and West Bend West High School (class of 1981).
He swam for a year at UW-LaCrosse – an NCAA Division III All-American as a freshman – and after that, recreationally. A decade ago he made swimming at the WAC in Fox Point a regular part of his routine again.
“It’s such good exercise. There’s no strain on your body. You get all the aerobic benefits of a really good workout,” said Ripple. “Just because I’m getting older, I started swimming again.”
But all of that came to a screeching halt with the diagnosis.
Allan’s first inpatient 100-hour chemo infusion started on September 12th, 2016. Eleven radiation treatments followed. And then he repeated the cycle: another 100 hours chemo. Then 11 radiation treatments. Then another 100 hours of chemo.
“The stuff they were giving me was the nastiest mix on the planet,” said Ripple. “The doctors said because you’re healthy, and young – relatively speaking – we’re going to take you right to the edge.”
Ripple was hospitalized for those chemo treatments – that’s how intense they were – and sleep deprived from all the poking and prodding by staff, and alarms of the monitoring systems. He would come home and crash.
Ripple’s baseline of health and fitness allowed him to withstand the aggressive treatment.
“Absolutely,” said Webber. “Allan needed the type of chemotherapy that we give very young healthy kids and adolescents. He was able to tolerate this because his heart was in excellent condition, and he was extremely fit.
“We treat these type of tumorous more aggressively given this stage of the tumor. There is some controversy with regard to this particular tumor as to whether chemotherapy is helpful or not but in patients that are able to tolerate the strong chemotherapy, we push very hard to treat him to try to prevent this from coming back, and to try to kill the potential cancer cells that may be floating throughout his body that we cannot see on imaging.”
Webber was able to remove his tumor in November of 2016; but it meant losing four of his six hamstring muscles in the surgery, where the tumor was found, to make sure the margins would be clear.
And then, more bad news. Aurora Cancer Care found a small spot of renal cell carcinoma on Ripple’s left kidney. That was also surgically removed in December.
“I had three 100-hour infusions and 22 radiation treatments prior to resection,” said Ripple. “And then three more 100 hour chemo infusions after resection.”
It was six months before he could put on his own socks, as he had lost range of motion in his leg, but Ripple and his wife Andrea Farr wanted to celebrate her 50th birthday in the Cayman Islands. Six weeks after he completed treatment, they were on the beach in 2017. It was there that Allan learned about the Flower Sea Swim. But could he do it?
The chemotherapy and radiation also did some pretty significant damage to the remainder of muscles in his thigh.
“As strong as he is physically, mentally and emotionally he is a strong patient as there is ever been,” said Webber.
“Emotionally this affected him very little which is probably the most critical portion of this. He is a perfect example of someone who never let this get him down even though he had as significant of toxicity with treatment as anyone gets.”
The Flower Sea Swim consists of three distance races and proceeds go to a different cause or charity ever year. After learning more about this swim, Allan decided he wanted to participate.
And he did really well. Because Ripple is such a strong swimmer, he was able to get to some clear water after that chaotic mass start. He’s found the conditions of both swims to be really good, and he plans to do this swim every year now.
“You don’t know until you try,” said Ripple. “I didn’t know I could survive cancer treatments until I had to.”
Cancer free, Ripple now swims three days a week, 1,750 yards under 30 minutes. He also bikes and lifts weights the other three days a week.
It’s a real stress relief from work as a mortgage lender at Johnson Bank.
“The nature of what I do is very stressful,” said Ripple. “Someone is trusting you with something that is really important to them. There’s no room for error; if you make a mistake there may be no place for someone to go. It’s a high stress job.”
But the cancer is gone and his health stats are really good: A resting heart rate of 52 beats a minute; blood pressure at 114 over 71; a pulsox/oxygen absorption rate of 99%.
“Mentally I’m a lot more relaxed because I have the opportunity to detach from my daily occupation and just do something physical,” said Ripple.
“I’m very healthy.”
Webber said there are many people who never recover from this type of treatment both from a physical standpoint but also emotional and mental standpoint. But Ripple shows his treatment team, and other cancer survivors, that being fit is important. So it the support system around the patient.
“Being able to keep mental goals, with Allan downhill skiing, scuba diving, and competing in high-level swimming kept him going,” said Webber. “He inspires us as cancer healthcare providers, but more so, he embodies the human spirit, the will to live.”
Message Lori Nickel on Twitter at @LoriNickel, Instagram at @bylorinickel or Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ChinUpLoriNickel