When Rob was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on 23rd May 2011, we had no illusions as to how devastating this news was. Rob’s father had died only three months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the age of 68.
Luckily though, after several further tests, Rob was deemed suitable for surgery and underwent a Whipple’s procedure under the expert team led by Associate Professor Jas Samra at Royal North Shore Hospital. He made a remarkable recovery from this massive surgery and was discharged 10 days later. Rob enjoyed another 12 months of relatively good health until he was diagnosed with inoperable metastases in July 2012. He died three months later on the 10th October at the age of 65.
Each patient’s situation is unique, but Rob’s was particularly so in that he had dedicated the whole of his career to cancer research. He was the Director of the Cancer Research Program at the Garvan Institute, Sydney, and the inaugural Director of The Kinghorn Cancer Centre. As such he was a key member of the Pancreatic Cancer Group led by Professor Andrew Biankin who, along with Professor Sean Grimmond from the University of Queensland, established the Australian Pancreatic Cancer Genome Initiative. Their first paper, as part of an international collaboration, was published in Nature in October 2012.
Several hours into Rob’s surgery I received a phone call from Andrew Biankin who, with his infectious and incorrigible enthusiasm, informed me that he was on his way back to the Garvan with Rob’s tissue! So Rob was in the extraordinary position of not only being involved in the research, but of providing tissue as well.
It is remarkable how much Rob went on to achieve over those last 15 months. He did not allow his diagnosis to define or deter him, returning to work after only two more weeks at home. At the end of July 2011 he beamed with pride and delight at our eldest daughter’s wedding. He went back to enjoying fine food and fine wine. As a Kiwi, he was a passionate All Blacks’ supporter. When Associate Professor Eva Segelov, his wonderful Medical Oncologist at St. Vincent’s Hospital, was working out Rob’s 6 month adjuvant chemotherapy schedule, I could see Rob sitting there working out the dates in his head while she waited patiently, but looked somewhat perplexed. Eventually I quietly said, "he’s trying to work out if there will be any clashes with the Rugby World Cup", to which she smilingly replied, "that’s no problem, I’ve had patients who have had to work around their Botox treatments."
The outcome was that Rob was able to have one of his treatments in Christchurch. Following the All Blacks’ victory in the final at Eden Park, Rob’s brother, Alistair, protectively led him to the waiting buses, but they were the only two on the bus. No-one else wanted to go home.
Rob made sure that we returned to New Zealand many times over that 15 months, not only so Rob could attend the Rugby World Cup, but to spend time with his brother Alistair and his family, and with his closest friends from his Lincoln University days, Dave Shepherd, John Palmer, Oli Ryan and many others. He also wanted to spend some time in his family home in Ashburton which we had kept, and to enjoy picnics and drives along the rivers and up the gorges of his beloved homeland. At Easter the whole family enjoyed a return to our annual holiday at South West Rocks and in May, Rob and I travelled to Kuala Lumpur where Rob was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons.
Following his diagnosis of metastases, Rob wanted to go somewhere warm so we spent a week in Port Douglas with our youngest two. He decided against second line therapy which can have debilitating side effects saying, "do you really live longer or does it just feel longer because you feel like crap?"
By August Rob was battling increasing pain but, with an enormous show of strength, he was able to achieve his final triumph by attending the opening of the Kinghorn Cancer Centre on the 28th August. Rob was the initial visionary and key driver of this joint venture between St. Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, and the Garvan Institute. It was modelled on his idea of "bedside to bench". Its aim is to enable research findings to be rapidly translated into clinical application in a personalised medicine model of cancer management – the right treatment to be delivered to the right patient at the right time.
It became increasingly difficult to manage Rob’s debilitating pain at home so he was admitted to St. Vincent’s Private Hospital. The children put aside their commitments to ensure that there was always someone at his bedside. Andrew flew back yet again from Boston, Sarah took leave and Rebecca and Charles put their studies aside. Alistair flew over from New Zealand several times to be with him as well. A bed was set up in Rob’s room and I was able to stay overnight. They have all expressed how important these last few weeks with Rob were to them and how they are so glad they were able to be there with him, even though his increasing pain medication meant that he was often not lucid.
The nursing staff were wonderful but we realised that Rob would not get home again so, after two weeks, we moved him to the Neringah Hospice in Wahroonga. This was a sad and difficult time as it was the final acceptance that Rob had only days to go. We did not have any experience with such a facility but can only say it was the most wonderful place for both Rob and we as a family to be for those final eight days. We were taught that death was a part of life with its own beauty and dignity.
One of Rob’s great friends and colleagues, Associate Professor John Grygiel, said, almost in wonder, "you know he never once complained".