SIU swimmer survives cancer

By Gus Bode

SIU swimmer Patrick Sullivan has defeated opponents in the pool for the last 10 years, but it’s what he defeated out of the pool over the last four years that makes him feel victorious.

Sullivan, a senior from Algonquin studying aviation, was diagnosed with testicular cancer in the summer of 2004, months before his first semester at SIU. Almost four years later, Sullivan is cancer free and said he has gained a perspective that allows him to look back on his time in Carbondale and to look forward to life after college.

‘Lance Armstrong gave me confidence …’


Sullivan said championship bicyclist and fellow cancer survivor Lance Armstrong was the reason he knew he had cancer.

During an English class his senior year of high school, Sullivan read Armstrong’s book, “It’s Not About the Bike,” in which Armstrong talks about his own fight with cancer. Sullivan said the book explains the importance of regular self-examinations and of telling someone right away on the first notice of something strange.

Sullivan said he was upset when he learned he was diagnosed with cancer, but glad that he followed Armstrong’s advice and had it checked out right away.

“Initially, I was extremely angry at the entire situation,” Sullivan said. “But after a half hour to an hour, I realized I have no one to be angry at; so I decided to go with what was next, and that was to kill it and get it out of my body.”

After removing the cancerous testicle, Sullivan required additional surgery to see if the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes. Fortunately for Sullivan, the cancer had not spread, and he was off to college.

Team acts as ‘second family’

Even though Sullivan has no individual titles and has never been a part of a conference championship team, the swimmer has thrived in his time at SIU, with the help of his teammates.


One of the most difficult transitions Sullivan had to make had little to do with being a cancer survivor. Only months after the cancerous tumor was removed, he had to adjust to college life in Carbondale, which was more than 360 miles away from the support group he had in Algonquin.

He said being on the swim team helped him get through the tough times.

“SIU athletics is a good thing. You have friends immediately when you come to college,” Sullivan said. “They were like my second family for the last four years.”

While his friends from home went to different colleges, Sullivan said the swim team and coach Rick Walker were all he had when he came to school, adding that the coach was always understanding and supportive.

Swimming with cancer put life in perspective for Sullivan and his teammates. The cancer never stopped him from swimming, but Sullivan said surviving it allowed him not to get down on himself if he had a bad day at the pool.

It also helped put things in perspective for roommate and teammate Stephan Ackermann, who said Sullivan’s situation gave his own life a different perspective.

“Sometimes we’d have a hard swim at the pool, and I’d go home and want to quit, but Pat was there telling me ‘No, you don’t want to do that.’ He is always there for me,” Ackermann said.

A different perspective

Sullivan said being diagnosed with cancer at age 18 was an experience that brought him down to earth.

“It happened when I was in the best shape of my life. I thought I was unstoppable,” Sullivan said. “It makes you wake up in the morning and get in the pool and say, ‘Hey, I’ve been given this gift of life, why not take it?'”

Sullivan, who expects to graduate in June, said he wants to land a job as a pilot and hopes to be wealthy enough to give back to SIU and the swimming and diving team. He said if it wasn’t for the cancer, he wasn’t sure how his life would have turned out.

“After cancer, I probably worked a little harder academically,” Sullivan said. “I might have given up on maybe flying or swimming, but I’m not sure which one because I wouldn’t have realized how important each one was to my life until after cancer.”

Luis C. Medina can be reached at 536-3311 ext. 238 or [email protected]