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Cancer survivor credits his ‘will to live’

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Robert Emmett (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

“Just remember, cancer has an uncanny way of knowing when you give in.”

This is what Robert Emmett was told when he arrived in London to start treatment of his stage-four bladder cancer.

The former Robin Hood Premier League player took the words of encouragement to heart, often sharing them with others, as he fought for more than seven years to beat the disease.

“It’s a traumatic experience,” said the 58-year-old Warwick resident, who spoke to The Royal Gazette as the island marks Movember. “It’s a mental battle as well as a physical battle. If you can do the mental side, you rely on the doctors and the medicine for the other aspect of it.”

This month, Robin Hood Football Club has teamed up with Bermuda Cancer and Health Centre to raise awareness for men’s health issues [see separate story inside].

Mr Emmett, who has been the club’s secretary for more than two decades and still enjoys playing football today, said: “I think it’s the perfect fit for both entities.

“Most men don’t want to go to the doctors for one reason or another. I would suggest an annual checkup for anyone 30 years and older — it could quite easily save your life.”

Mr Emmett, who has lived in Bermuda for 37 years, found out he had cancer after surviving a brain aneurysm in June 1999.

He had been airlifted to the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston for neurosurgery and subsequent tests indicated cancer.

“It was quite fortuitous really,” he said, adding that he’d had no symptoms.

“I was fit and healthy. I was still playing football — that’s why I never knew I was ill. It sort of came out of the blue.”

For insurance purposes Mr Emmett had to return to Bermuda, where it was determined that it was bladder cancer.

After a year of unsuccessful treatment on-island, he fell very ill on a stag party in Las Vegas.

He ended up in the intensive care unit at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital before flying to London where he was admitted to a specialist cancer treatment hospital.

He had surgery and MVAC chemotherapy — “probably the worst thing you can ever get” — at The Royal Marsden.

“I signed up as a clinical trialist because I didn’t think I was coming back to Bermuda. They just threw everything at me to see what would happen.”

The treatment was very debilitating. “I was very ill. I didn’t think I was going to make it.”

But he did, and after four to five months he returned to Bermuda, where he continued his treatment. He had regular surgery at KEMH to remove any new tumours growing in his bladder.

In 2003, Mr Emmett went on a football tour to Panama with Robin Hood and spent time with the indigenous Embera people.

Mr Emmett saw the shaman, who made him a concoction in an attempt to cure his cancer naturally.

“I was pulling at straws at this point. But it did make a significant difference,” he said, adding that his doctors were amazed that his tumours had shrunk.

He even went back a year later but he fell ill again in 2006 and returned to London for more surgery and chemotherapy.

A year later, he took himself back to London for a check-up with his consultant, who took a sputum sample after hearing he had a sore throat and cough.

“He called me the very next day to say I have an appointment for you at the Royal Brompton Hospital with a consultant,” Mr Emmett said.

Tests showed that the cancer had metastasized to his lungs and within a week of seeing him “I had my bottom half of my left lung taken out”. He started a third round of chemotherapy. “A lot of people decline it at that point,” he said.

“It’s something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. But I think it’s a case of willpower or will to live. You power through it.”

The treatment worked and since 2007, he has gone for regular MRIs and CT scans, every three months at first, then six months, then yearly.

“And now there’s no more scheduled unless something goes untoward. But I have regular appointments with my oncologist,” he said, adding that he also sees his GP regularly.

“I’m aware of looking out for vital signs that something could go wrong.”

Although he gets tired easily, and his immune system is suppressed from the bouts of chemotherapy, he still enjoys playing football.

“The worst thing about it was it came at a critical time in my life,” he said.

He had just moved in with his girlfriend and their relationship ended at the turn of the millennium.

“At such a young age it was a lot to take on board,” Mr Emmett said.

But he insists it wasn’t all bad — he made a lot of good friends over the years. “I’ve met a lot of nice people along the way. There’s some positives out of it; it’s a very humbling experience and it makes you more thankful.”

Robert Emmett (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
Robert Emmett (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
<p>Different types affect bladder</p>

Bladder cancers can be divided into two types, according to oncologist Chris Fosker, above.

“There’s something called superficial bladder cancer and then there’s other bladder cancers,” he said.

“If you take all bladder cancers together it normally ends up about fifth or sixth in the most common types of cancer.

“But about 80 per cent of those are the superficial bladder cancers and they are very easy to treat. It is often curable if it’s in the early stage.”

Dr Fosker explained that the small lumps found inside the bladder can be removed with a simple surgical procedure.

But he added: “The challenge is if they go beyond that, so if they’re left and turn into this more aggressive, invasive bladder cancer, which is the opposite — it’s a very, very challenging cancer to treat, either with very toxic or morbid surgery or chemotherapy or radiation or sometimes needing all three.”