Tired and sick, Dave Asp's body is slowly failing him — but his mind is working overtime to complete his latest marathon and finish what his physician calls "a story of human triumph."
The 70-year-old elite endurance athlete from Red Wing has been battling melanoma since May 2014. Undaunted, Asp, a veteran psychologist in addition to a competitive athlete, continued competing for three more years while simultaneously creating Mayo Clinic's first melanoma support group and writing a book about his cancer journey.
"This was just going to be a 5K run — they'd go in and surgically remove the spot," Asp said of his surgery while hospitalized last week at Methodist Hospital in Rochester. "When it metastasized, then it turned into a marathon."
Marathons and other long-distance events happen to be Asp's specialty. He's completed 27 American Birkebeiner cross country skiing competitions, 16 marathons, four Half Ironman and three Ironman competitions — which features a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bicycle ride and a 26.2-mile run. His personal highlights include qualifying for the 2008 Ironman World Championships in Hawaii and competing in the 2013 Half Ironman World Championships in Las Vegas.
Still, this "marathon" has been very different.
Down, not out
Asp has been in and out of the hospital since September due to complications with his cancer treatment. Those complications have halted his running regimen, leaving him weak and bedridden. In recent weeks, he's often slept most of the day.
Early-stage melanoma diagnoses have a five-year survival rate of 98 percent, but that number drops to 62 percent if the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes. Just 18 percent survive once it's spread to other parts of the body, according to Cancer.net.
Asp's first melanoma spot was found on the back of his head, initially hidden by hair, almost four years ago. In early 2015, Mayo doctors discovered it had spread to his liver, spleen and bones.
Four months after that dire diagnosis, Asp was deemed to be in remission after completing four rounds of immunotherapy. Then the spots came back. It's been a medical rollercoaster ever since.'
The write stuff
Throughout it all, Asp put on a brave face and documented his journey in a daily journal. That writing quickly morphed into book form, culminating in a book-signing Dec. 23 at Fair Trade Books in Red Wing. More than 100 people showed up to support the longtime Mayo psychiatrist who started the nordic ski club at Red Wing High School in 2011.
The book — titled "Start Line and Beyond: Chronicles of an Athlete/Cancer Patient" and available on Amazon — melds Asp's athletic adventures with the personal uncertainties since the cancer diagnosis. He says both journeys have required similar traits: fortitude, resiliency, support of others and faith.
"(The stories) will hopefully inspire people, give them hope and build on their strength of getting through any challenge — whether it's athletic or medical," Asp said. "It's not a self help book or a how to, but hopefully people can glean from this what they can do and identify their own strengths.
"If they have a big challenge ahead, they shouldn't run from it. Take it on."
'Race against yourself'
Kathie Asp, a former Mayo nurse practitioner, said that's been a common theme in her husband's life.
"Fighter, fighter, fighter," Kathie said. "Just get to the start line. It's not the medals, it's the race against yourself."
Mayo Clinic oncologist Svetomir Markovic, a world renowned physician whom the Asps call "Dr. Melanoma," gushes about his patient's upbeat attitude. He calls him "an Ironman in every sense of the word."
Markovic has been so impressed that he agreed to write the foreword in Asp's book and ordered 40 copies to distribute among patients and staff. Asp plans to reciprocate by donating his book proceeds to the Mayo Melanoma Research Program.
"This guy is the real deal," Dr. Markovic said. "He is an incredible human being. I see a lot of patients going through this craziness, but Dr. Asp is truly one in a million. I was just incredibly honored when he asked me to write the foreword."
While Markovic's melanoma patients will soon benefit from Asp's written words, many have already been hearing directly from him. Asp created Mayo's first melanoma support group in September 2016, filling what Markovic feels is an important niche.
The support group has been meeting monthly in the Gonda Building to hear from experts, discuss research and explain therapy options, among other things. For some, it's simply an emotional outlet after being diagnosed with cancer.
Asp has allowed interested parties to call in to the meetings, benefiting from afar. However, he's been among those forced to call in recent months.
Markovic marvels at Asp's determination to make a difference for others, even as he's fighting for his own life.
"This is truly a story of human triumph," Markovic said. "No matter how this diagnosis goes, Dr. Asp is truly remarkable — and I say that every day. His love for life is just enriching to everyone who talks to him, even now when he's in tough shape in the hospital bed.
"The best part of my job is meeting people like him."