Saturday, August 1, 2009

The disease that stalked Sir Bobby

What appeared to be a sinus problem was in fact malignant melanoma
Former England manager Sir Bobby Robson, who has died at the age of 76, was diagnosed with cancer five times. It is a scenario that most of us - even the one in three of us who develop the disease - are unlikely to face.

Sir Bobby is reported to have responded indignantly when he was first told in 1992 that a "little bit of cancer" in his bowel would take him away from PSV Eindhoven for three months.

It was taken out and the manager got back to business.

The fear for most would be a recurrence of the original cancer, or the news that it might have spread. But three years later, an entirely new form of the disease made an appearance - and a rare one at that.

Malignant melanoma in Sir Bobby's face was found by a specialist after he had complained about blocked sinuses. A very rare and dangerous form of cancer, he was told he would be "dead by the end of the season" if something was not done straight away.

To remove it surgeons had to take out his teeth and tunnel through the roof of his mouth. When they were done, the hole they left had to be filled with a rubber plug.

It is unclear whether the cancers Sir Bobby subsequently faced were fresh ones or secondary tumours.

In 2006, cancer was found in his lungs and a year later a brain tumour left him with partial paralysis.

A scan then revealed inoperable nodules in his lungs. The doctor told him he may have as little as eight months to live, but Sir Bobby survived for over two years.

"It looks like Sir Bobby had at least two primary tumours - which in itself is very unusual," says Jean Slocombe, Cancer Research UK 's senior information nurse.

"Most people who get one cancer do not go on to develop a completely different one, and to have treatment for five bouts of cancer is very uncommon.

"This is a man who went through a huge amount and showed a great deal of spirit in the process."

Cancer campaigners all agree that Sir Bobby's legacy is multifaceted.

"To live with the disease so publicly has been immensely empowering to many people suffering - particularly given that he had a very complex cancer of the head and neck which required very unpleasant surgery," says Maureen Rutter, northeast regional director of Macmillan.

"He showed you could face cancer head-on, that you could get on with life. He had immense strength of character that was visible to all.

"But at the end of the day not everyone can or wants to cope in that way, and that is nothing to be ashamed of."

He also leaves the The Bobby Robson Cancer Foundation, which raised sufficient funds to open a trials research centre in Newcastle earlier this year.

It aims to offer patients access to early trials and potential new treatments, many of which have never been tried in humans.

Professor Ruth Plummer, the director of the unit, described him as "an extremely warm, generous and special man".

"It took great personal effort for him to set up the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation and it was typical of the Bobby we came to know that he thought of helping others even when fighting his own battle with cancer."

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