Two years ago, Denise Steeb was scared for her life.
Today, she is living it to the fullest.
At 48, Steeb is a cancer survivor, full-time student, mother of four, and utility player for the American River College women’s water polo team.
It is her first season playing the sport.
Competing at a collegiate level with women who are nearly 30 years younger than she is, Steeb says she is very proud of herself.
“I hope I’m sending them a positive message about growing young,” Steeb said
For Steeb, tragedy struck two years ago.
It all started during a swim meet at University of California, Davis. A coach and a member of Sierra College master’s swim team, Steeb competed in multiple races, placing third and fourth, and felt good about her performance.
But when she woke up the next morning, she noticed blood in her urine. Not thinking much of it because she wasn’t in any pain, she proceeded with her usual daily swim routine.
When she returned home that night, she started to feel that something was really wrong.
“I had to go to the bathroom really bad,” she said. “I felt a lot of pressure on my bladder and when I started to go, it stopped right in the middle of it. At that moment, I passed three big blood clots.”
Pain arrived hours later, followed by intense vomiting. Steeb’s boyfriend took her to the emergency room. She was tested for kidney stones and had a CT scan, which revealed a cancerous tumor the size of a golf ball in her right kidney.
It took a few moments for her to realize the severity of her diagnosis.
“It truly hit me,” she said. “How was I going to tell my boys? How will they take it? Mom never gets sick.”
Surgery and survival
The doctor believed that the intensity of her previous race days had caused the tumor and her kidney to hemorrhage, which was why there was blood in her urine.
But there was some good news as well. The cancer was confined to her kidney and had not spread to the rest of her body.
On Oct. 11, 2009, Steeb went in for surgery and doctors successfully removed her right kidney, along with the tumor. Because the doctors were able to remove the cancer completely, she did not require chemotherapy or radiation.
Steeb was determined to recover quickly from the surgery. In no time, she started training for a half-marathon. “I just wanted to prove to myself (that) this wasn’t going to take over me.”
Months later, she signed up for a marathon, “determined to keep my mind focused,” she said. Her doctor said she needed to take it easy, so she did the marathon in a run-walk, but she finished it. “It was a personal endeavor that I wanted to complete, for me,” she said.
Diving back in
In the fall of 2010, Steeb enrolled at American River College to finish her degree in chemical dependency counseling.
One day she decided to go by the pool to inquire about the swim programs offered at ARC. She started talking to a woman near the pool about a master’s team.
She said, “Little did I know I was talking to Bethani Black, the head coach for all of the women’s swim programs. We really connected nicely and quickly.”
Black said that they didn’t have a master’s team, but she should sign up for one of Black’s physical education swim classes. “If you are that good, I’ll put you in with the water polo girls,” Steeb remembered Black saying.
Within the first week, Steeb was swimming with the team.
Many consider water polo to be one of the most physically demanding sports there is. Water polo players must be excellent swimmers, have great leg strength, and stamina.
The utility players are comfortable playing all positions in the pool. They are the strongest players on the team, who swap places with other players whenever there is a chance to score.
“This is my first time competing in this sport,” Steeb said, “I hold my own … I sometimes start and if I don’t, I’m usually the first to go in as a sub.”
So far this season, Steeb has 4 goals, 5 steals, and 1 assist.
According to Black, Steeb is one of this season’s standout players.
“She gives 100 percent in all that she does,” Black said. “Whether it’s in practice, competition, or being a teammate. She is a fantastic woman and our program is better off for her being in it.”
Despite Steeb’s life-threatening illness, she said she never lost hope and was surprised at how much she has learned about herself in the past few years.
“A long time ago I heard someone say, live life to the fullest with no regrets,” she said. “I live by that more (than ever) these days.”