Water Warrior: La Jolla triathlete and coach beats skin cancer, urges others to enjoy sun safely

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Tom Atwell coaches the La Jolla High swim team at Coggan Family Aquatic Complex.

By Pat Sherman

Tom Atwell is the epitome of tough. He runs 100-mile ultra-marathons and competes in grueling Ironman competitions, many days waking before 3 a.m. to run 15 miles or more.

After that, he’ll get on his bicycle or swim 45 minutes at Coggan Family Aquatic Center, where he coaches water polo and swimming for La Jolla High School. Then it’s off to his job teaching AP European history at La Jolla High.

It’s this indomitable spirit that doctors say helped him take on cancer twice, and live to serve as an inspiration to others.

In 1997 Atwell was diagnosed with a rare sarcoma known as a malignant fibrous histiocytoma. Doctors gave him a 25 percent chance of survival. A softball-sized tumor on his hip required the removal of the top of one leg and a portion of his glutes.

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Tom Atwell at Coggan Family Aquatic Complex in La Jolla.

“I had been racing in triathlons. I surfed a lot, trained a lot. I had 4 percent body fat and was just charging pretty hard,” recalled Atwell, 47, noting that his three brothers — who he said have all made less healthy life choices — have never had a serious illness.

“It’s like, how can I get cancer? I’m a healthy guy, I’m training, I’m working out. I think I’ve done all this stuff right. How am I getting sick? I had a lot of questions for myself. It was pretty devastating.”

Due to his otherwise peak physical condition, doctors were able to put Atwell on an atypically aggressive chemotherapy regimen. “Normally, you go in and you do three hours in the chemo lounge and then leave … but I was hospitalized for five days straight and they would do a drip around the clock and it would just wreck me,” he recalled.

By the time his body would regain strength, it was time to repeat the process.

He survived and again thrived.

Then, early last year, cancer struck again — this time melanoma cells started appearing on Atwell’s shoulders head, ear and lip.

This time, he didn’t take the diagnosis lying down, continuing to train through chemotherapy, skin creams and subcutaneous hormone injections.

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Tom Atwell with his son, Cole, and daughter, Lexi Photos by Pat Sherman

“I didn’t make it a topic of conversation (with my doctors) because they probably would have said I should hold off and not do it,” Atwell said of his modified training. “It was much more subdued than normal, but if I couldn’t get out and run I’d at least get on my bike and pedal. I tried constantly to at least do something.”

As a way to shake the dark cloud of cancer (as he put it), Atwell ran the American Cancer Society’s 100-mile Relay For Life at La Jolla High — just one week after completing his last treatment in June 2013.

“Ever since, I’ve had it in the back of my mind that the reason I survived was because I was in good shape and I was healthy and fit,” he said. “That’s what gets me up in middle of the night … and makes me want to get out and go after it. I just always want to make sure I’m as fit as I can possibly be, should I ever have a recurrence.”

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