Last fall, Flin Flonner Robert Kirschman was given some of the worst health news someone can get - cancer diagnosis, stage four. He's fighting back by training for a triathlon later this year and seeking to raise money to help others.
Kirschman - his friends call him “Bob” - spent his formative years in Flin Flon, graduating from Hapnot Collegiate before a spell in the Canadian Armed Forces, earning a degree from the Univ. of Saskatchewan and moving back up north. In Creighton, Bob and his wife Chelsea started a family, looking after daughters Aubrey and Ella before moving to Meadow Lake, Sask. in 2021.
Bob has run triathlons for several years, three-stage races consisting of a mass start swim (usually in open water like a lake or sea), switching to a road race on a bike and ending with a distance run. The events are held back-to-back-to-back - they are gruelling and require months, if not years, of training to do right. Kirschman spent hours cycling, both on the roads around Creighton and on a trainer at his home, running on trails, roads and treadmills and swimming at the Flin Flon Aqua Centre to get ready for those races.
“The reason I always did races and triathlons is to better myself, to challenge myself, to keep myself healthy in the future. I enjoy it,” Bob said.
In 2022, Kirschman was told after a routine health check that he had a growth in his abdomen - further tests revealed it was a rare kind of cancerous tumour, known as a gastrointestinal stromal tumour (GIST).
Later in the year, he had the tumour, by then almost the size of a football, removed and it seemed like his future was bright.
That image crashed down last fall, when a follow-up exam revealed that the cancer was back, with a vengeance - starting from its old perch in his digestive system, Bob’s cancer has spread into his liver and other vital organs. Bob and Chelsea were told the two words no one in their situation wants to hear - “stage four” - and were told the cancer would not respond to chemotherapy treatment.
Bob’s long-term survival rate could be better. According to the Cancer Network, people with stage four GIST have about a 51 per cent chance of surviving five years after diagnosis.
Needing a way to help even the odds, the Kirschmans researched Bob’s illness and found a support group and organization meant specifically to care for people and families affected by GIST - the Life Raft Group. The group connects people who are going through GIST with resources to fight it, information and care, even occasionally a shoulder to cry on or emotional support. The cancer is rare - only about 2,700 people are confirmed by the group to have GIST, including Bob - but the support is still vital.
“They provide support to people with this type of cancer. They have a database of patients who are going through this,” he said.
That group has not only given the Kirschmans help in their darkest hour - they’ve given Bob a cause to fight for.
Next December, Bob plans to take part in the Ironman 70.3 Florida race in Haines City, Fla. in December - a gruelling 70.3-kilometre race, half the length of the infamous Ironman triathlons held each year around the world by the toughest of athletes.
On top of that, Bob plans to take part in the Frank Dunn Triathlon at Waskesiu Lake, an annual event that attracts athletes from across Saskatchewan, along with potentially running a half-marathon if time allows.
He’s run triathlons of different lengths, run half-marathons and marathons, but never anything like this - and definitely not in the same circumstances.
Over the year leading up to the event, he will be documenting his journey along the way and trying to raise money for the Life Raft Group. So far, Bob has had minimal adverse health effects. He posts regular updates on his training and workouts on social media pages - he has named the fundraiser 70.3 For GIST Research - running around grid roads and city streets, biking virtual races and hitting the pool to train.
While Bob’s cancer is always front of mind, doctors have told him he should be able to train and pursue running the races, even while undergoing treatment. He has been accepted into a drug trial to test a new medication which might fight off his cancer, making regular trips from Meadow Lake to Alberta to receive treatment - it was the Life Raft Group that connected him with the trial in the first place.
“Really, honestly, I feel great. I have permission from my doctor to do this,” he said.
“That could change - I could be dealing with side effects from this drug, but I’m working at it - I do have a coach as well helping me through this.”
If his health makes him change plans, Bob says he’s fine with it - as long as some money has been raised, some support rallied up, maybe even some encouragement given for anyone wanting to embrace being healthier.
“If I have to skip out on the run, then I have to skip out on the run. That’s a real possibility. I’m going to try to fight through any side effects right now, but I’m leaving open the plan to do this - it’s stage four cancer and things could change real quick,” Bob said.
“Realistically speaking, that might not be the case then, even though I’ve got no reason to think it won’t be fine. If that happens, it happens and it is what it is, but at least I would’ve raised money along the way.”
Bob is usually private about his triathlon training, rarely even talking about it with close friends, not wishing to draw attention to himself. That has changed with his diagnosis and his new campaign, giving him a sense of purpose to spread the word and possibly help others in need.
“This isn’t about me anymore,” he said.
“This is shifting from being about me to about the cause. I’m still doing it because I want to do it.”
Donations to Bob's campaign can be made on 70.3 For GIST Research pages on Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, where Bob has posted updates.