Mesothelioma Survivor, a Navy Veteran, Defies the Odds

Stories from Survivors

Navy veteran Bob Niemiec is a mesothelioma survivor who even doctors say defied the odds. The 78-year-old was given just 10 months to live in 2019, but that hasn’t stopped him from living every day he can to his fullest. Medical experts say Niemiec is not the average mesothelioma patient. 

“Every doctor we’ve seen – we’ve seen research scientists, we did everything – and they all said it’s impossible medically for this man to still be alive, so it’s just not his time to go,” said Jeannie, his wife of 55 years.  

Niemiec entered the Navy in 1965 at the age of 20. His first assignment out of boot camp was to scrape paint off of the landing ship U.S.S. Hermitage. It turns out the paint he was scraping contained asbestos. 

Exposure to the carcinogenic mineral can cause a number of diseases, including asbestosis, COPD, various forms of cancer such as mesothelioma and many other issues. Niemiec said he didn’t feel the effects of the asbestos exposure until many years later. 

Declining Health Leads to Mesothelioma Diagnosis 

Along with working for the city of Omaha, Niemiec enjoyed being a baseball umpire. It was during his time on the baseball diamond that he began noticing he was breathing harder than usual. That started in the 1990s, about 30 years after his stint in the Navy.

Bob Niemiec Navy photo
Mesothelioma survivor Bob Niemiec was exposed to asbestos while serving aboard the U.S.S. Hermitage in the Navy.

In 2012, Niemiec began having more serious breathing issues. That same year, two masses were found on his lungs. His wife said his major problems began later, in 2019. 

“It started out very simple. One day he got up and he couldn’t breathe and I took him into the doctor and he had a collapsed lung,” she told The Mesothelioma Center. “With a collapsed lung of course they put him in the hospital and they tried to inflate it and they couldn’t. They finally got it inflated and we came home. A week later and it happened again, they inflated it, we came home and a week later it happened again, so he had three collapsed lungs.” 

Doctors told the couple this was the beginning of the end of Niemiec’s life. Unwilling to accept that diagnosis, they got a second opinion at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. The doctors at UNMC decided to perform surgery, but due to existing complications with Niemiec’s heart, it was a high-risk option. 

Niemiec underwent eight hours of surgery in August 2019. Doctors told him he wasn’t a candidate for another surgery due to his many risk factors. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma one month later. 

“We had no idea what it was. I’d never even heard of it before,” is wife said, adding that their entire lives were turned upside down by the diagnosis. 

The Niemiecs credit the Patient Advocates at The Mesothelioma Center for helping them through the entire process. 

“If you have mesothelioma, being in contact with The Mesothelioma Center is a wonderful, wonderful source of information,” Jeanne Niemiec said. “Amy was able to answer any questions I had. It changed our world, is what it did. Our world was turned upside down.

“But without this group I don’t know where we would be,” she added. “I had no idea what this even was; neither did Bob or our kids. What a wonderful organization to be able to help people like ourselves who had no idea.”

Bob and Jeannie Niemiec family photo
Bob and Jeannie Niemiec with their family.

A Different Treatment Option

Soon after Niemiec’s mesothelioma diagnosis, he was offered chemotherapy and radiation as treatment options. His wife said he decided to choose quality of life over quantity.

“He said, ‘I’m not going to take radiation and chemo and be sick with whatever time I have left. If it’s terminal, it’s terminal, and we’ll just live with it.’ So he took no treatments whatsoever,” she said.

In January 2021, Niemiec’s doctor offered immunotherapy as an option. He agreed to do it as long as the treatments didn’t make him sick. He was given two types of medication during the treatments and took them every three weeks. The treatments were painful and exhausted him, and after several months his body started rejecting the drugs. After 10 months, Niemiec had had enough.

“Finally Bob said, ‘I’m not going to live like this, I’m not going to feel sick all of the time,’” his wife said. 

Niemiec stopped all immunotherapy treatments in October 2021. He hasn’t taken anything for the past two years except over-the-counter pain medication. The doctors told the Niemiecs there was nothing more they could do.

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Beating the Odds Every Day

Despite not having any form of treatment for the past two years, Niemiec is able to live a somewhat normal life. He uses a cane to get around but is still able to do everyday chores around the house like the dishes or feeding the birds. The couple also enjoys just sitting together on their back deck. 

“Bob hardly complains at all. Even when the pain was terrible, I could tell by the expression on his face, but he has never complained about it,” Jeannie Niemiec said. “He’s had lots of things wrong with him, but he’s still fighting and still doing well.”

The one thing the Niemiecs say is a big inspiration is their four grandchildren.

“The grandkids make us feel like we have something to live for. They make you feel so alive when they come and they have so much energy and we have very strong faith,” Jeanne Niemiec said. “Bob had always said he wanted to see his two oldest grandsons graduate from college. Our family unit is very important and the boys come over and visit all of the time.

“We also thank God for the time that he’s given us,” she added. “I’ve talked to other people about this and there are so many other people who have it worse than what we do. We just attribute this as, this is what God gave us and we just deal with it. We can’t change it so we try to live day by day.”

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