DURING the latter part of his life, Sir Bobby Robson worked hard towards a new goal of fighting cancer through his charity.
SIR Bobby Robson may have passed away but his remarkable determination to beat cancer has endured with a lasting legacy off the football pitch.
As Sir Bobby battled cancer for the fifth time, he devoted the last 18 months of his life to raising funds to support those pioneering the fight against the often devastating disease.
In March 2008, the former Newcastle United and England manager created The Sir Bobby Robson Foundation to focus on the early detection and treatment of cancer and the clinical trials of new drugs that will eventually beat it.
The foundation has raised £2.4m since its launch and has helped fund a pioneering trials centre.
The Sir Bobby Robson Cancer Trials Research Centre, within the Northern Centre for Cancer Care at Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital, opened in February last year and has seen 600 patients from the North East and Cumbria receive treatment there.
One woman who had the privilege of getting to know Sir Bobby before his death was Prof Ruth Plummer, an oncologist who helped care for him during his treatment for nearly two years.
“I met Sir Bobby when it was clear his melanoma had reached the stage where he would need chemotherapy treatment, that there wasn’t a surgical option any more,” she said.
“I told the research nursing team, who I work very closely with, that I was going to meet Sir Bobby Robson and my plan was just to talk to him exactly as I would any other patient and if I talked about trials was that an issue? They said ‘no’ if that was the best option for him.
“So he very early on knew about the cancer trials because we had a first-line melanoma study using the standard chemotherapy plus a promising new drug and he opted to go in to that rather than have standard therapy.
“He had been very involved in the trials and about six to nine months into treating him I said that we were raising money to set up a new trials unit and did he know any local businessmen who might want to make a donation.
“In the typical Sir Bobby way, he said would I put something in writing and he would think about it.
“Then a week or so later he told me that he had got a group of friends together and he and his wife had decided to set up a charity and they were going to do it for me to raise money for the unit.”
From that moment the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation was born and a fundraising target of £500,000 was set to help fund the Sir Bobby Robson Cancer Trials Research Centre, though the 76-year-old was not always comfortable in putting his name to the projects.
Prof Plummer, now director of the Sir Bobby Robson Cancer Trials Research Centre, said: “He was slightly embarrassed about the fact his name was going to be put to the foundation and unit. He was a lovely man and in a sense very humble. He would have been amazed at the outpouring of grief.
“He kept saying to me ‘we’re going to do our best but I don’t know if we can make much money for you’. He was really worried that they wouldn’t be able to make the fundraising target.”
In just seven weeks, the target of half a million pounds was raised.
And in February 2009, Sir Bobby, who was fighting cancer for the fifth time, officially unveiled the new cancer trials research centre alongside England boss Fabio Capello and football legends Alan Shearer and Peter Beardsley.
The centre was constructed by the Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and equipped by the foundation. Its specialist staff are funded through Newcastle University, the NHS Trust, the Foundation and Cancer Research UK.
It gives North East cancer patients access to clinical trials of new drugs including early trials, which are just starting to be used in people, as well as those which are further on in development and being compared to standard treatments for effectiveness.
Prof Plummer said: “Sir Bobby always said he would like the research centre to be his lasting legacy. He felt the foundation was for the North East and that it would help other cancer patients in the region, both in treatment and in support for children’s areas.
“He was very keen that it would take things forward but would be North East-based because of his love of the region. It is very exciting to have such a good unit in Newcastle for the North East. It has been incredibly well supported and still is.
“We have had some individual breakthroughs because of the work I do, and what Sir Bobby was involved with.
“It’s the early-phase stuff with drugs where they’ve shown promise in lab work in cancer cells in a dish, but we need to start using them in patients.”
In addition to equipping the centre, the charity has funded a specialist research nurse and doctor at the centre and enhanced a children’s waiting area at the Northern Centre for Cancer Care.
It also contributed tens of thousands of pounds to the new Teenage Cancer Unit at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary.
Prof Plummer said: “Even when he was poorly he always told everybody he was all right and asked how they were.
“He was very inspirational while he was on the unit. He had good scan results and bad scan results but he tried to make everything as easy as possible for other people, he didn’t think about himself.
“Even when we were talking about fairly bleak things his joke would be he’d say to me ‘so, I’m I still going to the match on Saturday?’. He just turned things around and made it into a joke.”
Prof Plummer added: “When he passed away it was a really sad day for us at the research centre.
“We knew how poorly he was. We had seen him at the football match at the weekend and Lady Elsie had said to me ‘we won’t be back’ because we all knew how ill he was. She rang me before 9am to say that he had died so that I didn’t hear it in the press.”
Support for the foundation is as strong as ever and, with the help of patrons within the region and in Suffolk, where Sir Bobby enjoyed success as manager of Ipswich Town, the future is bright.
Now the mantle has been passed to his widow Lady Elsie Robson and their three sons Paul, Andrew and Mark who are all equally committed to its success.
Prof Plummer said: “Lady Elsie and Sir Bobby had a very good partnership in marriage and it was together they battled his cancer, as they did everything else.
“She and her sons have continued to be very involved in the Foundation and they are proud of what has been achieved.
“Within a week of Sir Bobby’s funeral, Lady Elsie rang up and said she wanted to come and meet me to talk about how they took the Foundation forward and what she wanted to do about it.
“She’s always been very keen that this was something she and the three sons would do. I think Sir Bobby would be overwhelmed and excited about the options we now have in cancer research.”