Riding for his life: ‘Having an incurable cancer focuses the mind on your real priorities’

Dealt a devastating diagnosis, Bob Munro got on his bike, got fit, and set about raising hundreds of thousands of pounds to help find treatments that could prolong his life
Photo: Mike Prior

Photo: Mike Prior

It was early 2012 and Bob Munro was playing five-a-side football, striving at the age of 52 to get back into an old hobby — only it was feeling far harder than he remembered.

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“The ball got kicked out of play and I just lay down on the floor, absolutely shattered. I figured it was just because I hadn’t played in ages. Little did I know.”

Two weeks later, a skiing trip proved the final straw for his quietly ailing body.

“I was so ill that I only skied two days out of the four. I remember my mate saying to me, ‘Are you alright? — you’ve got blood coming out of your nose.’”

By the time he got home, Munro feared he was having a heart attack and was rushed to hospital. Doctors concluded: “It’s not your heart, but you have a life-threatening case of pneumonia.”

He spent the next 10 days undergoing a gamut of tests and procedures, which showed he was also severely anaemic. Blood transfusions followed, as did a CT scan of his aching back.

From bad to worst

“I remember coming out of the scanner, asking the radiographer, ‘Everything OK then?’ and him saying, “Er, the doctor will speak to you.’”

The reticent radiographer had spotted evidence of tumours in Munro’s bones, which doctors subsequently diagnosed as a rare form of blood cancer called multiple myeloma. Only around six people per 100,000 per year are diagnosed with the condition, and each one faces a grim prognosis.

“The doctor said, don’t go googling it because — not in so many words — it will frighten the s**t out of you. Of course, you do look anyway and the first thing you see is that it’s incurable.”

Not only is it incurable: 46 per cent of sufferers die within five years of diagnosis.

“I was lucky in contracting pneumonia,” says Munro, “as it meant mine was diagnosed relatively early.”

Over the next 18 months as doctors struggled to find the right combination of drugs to get the cancer under control, Munro watched a huge amount of cycling. Confined to his sofa, he relished the distraction of British sporting glories in the Olympics and Tour de France.

“I watched every minute — it was fantastic. I thought, if I’m going to get fit and well, I should get out on the bike.”

By the end of 2013, doctors had finally got Munro on to effective drugs, though his fitness had suffered from the inactivity and his weight had crept up to 19st — for an understandable reason: “Frankly, when you think you’re going to die, you’re not going to deny yourself another bit of chocolate or ice cream.”

Motivated by the achievements of Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, in summer 2014 Munro bought a road bike and gradually began to get fit. Once he’d built a base, he joined his local club, 700cc, and discovered the joys of group riding.

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“The first time I rode in a chaingang and experienced drafting… oh, what a thrill. Riding on new roads through incredible scenery… it was fantastic. The more I rode, the more I got out of it, getting faster and faster.”

By the end of 2014, Munro’s fitness had improved hugely and he was feeling ready for a challenge. Multiple myeloma is a relapsing and remitting cancer, meaning it can be temporarily subdued but ultimately mutates and advances — unless another effective drug is found.

Ride of his life

Munro arrives in Pairs

Munro arrives in Pairs

“I thought, what can I do to keep myself alive? I knew I couldn’t discover a new drug myself, but I figured I could raise funds to support the powerful patient advocate, which could speed up getting the next drug that I’ll need.”

Munro, now 56, decided to organise an escorted ride from London to Paris over four days from May 5-8, in support of Myeloma UK. He recruited 45 family and friends, and helped rally a group of 125.

“Having motorcycle outriders, it felt like we were on the Tour de France. I’m a big kid really — I just loved it! When we got to the Eiffel Tower, about 100 friends, family and charity staff were waiting to meet us. Aside from my wedding, it was the best day of my life. Everybody was tearful; you couldn’t help but be moved. For me, it was like a dream come true.”

The ride raised an incredible £300,000, a significant boost for Myeloma UK as it strives to find new treatments. Munro has continued training regularly — but does he have his doctors’ blessing?

“My consultant said he had absolutely nothing to compare me with. I told him I feel the fittest I have since I was at school, and he said, ‘Well, that sounds good to me — carry on.’”

Not just a one-off event…

Following the success of the inaugural event, Myeloma UK are planning to repeat it in May 2017. The organisers are hoping to recruit more riders using the footage, photographs and rider feedback from the 2016 ride.

>>> Read more about the Myeloma UK London to Paris 2017

Riders will come from the pharmaceutical companies responsible for producing the drugs, plus medical specialists who are involved in Myeloma, as well as patients and carers, family and friends of patients.

Rolling road closures give the riders the freedom of the Arc de Triomphe. Photo: Myeloma UK

Rolling road closures gave the riders the freedom of the Arc de Triomphe. Photo: Myeloma UK

Medical advances

The last year has seen some major advances in the development and licensing of new drugs to combat Myeloma. For patients like Munro this could be life changing.

“This is exactly the acceleration in development of new drugs, from discovery to patient, that has been the driver of my fund raising for Myeloma UK,” he explained.

“Myeloma UK act as a powerful patient advocate to speed the process with a Clinical Trial Network and negotiation, and lobbying with pharma companies, regulators and Government.”

Plenty more riding ahead

Munro has plenty more planned, too. For 2017 he is already planning to take on the Mallorca 312, ride the Cambridge Gran Fondo – with the intent of qualifying for the Worlds in France, plus ascents of Mont Ventoux and the Col du Tourmalet.

“I’d love to tick off Lands End to John O’Groats too,” says Munro. “It might sound a bit ambitious but having an incurable cancer focuses the mind on your real priorities in life.”

How it worked for Bob Munro

Four years on from being diagnosed with incurable blood cancer, Bob Munro is loving riding his bike and feeling fit

  • “The way I look at it, there are two things I can do to prolong my life: support the work of Myeloma UK, and keep as healthy as possible. There’s evidence that being fit boosts your immune system.”
  • “In the first year of cycling, I got myself down from 19 stone to 15 stone.”
  • “I’ve joined two local clubs, 700c and Team Ascendo, and I can hang with the best of them now: 50 miles is no problem. By the time of the [London-Paris] ride, I was doing 200 miles a week.”
  • “Discovering Strava was life-changing. You get a real sense of achievement when you beat your own [segment] time. On one local hill, I saw that I was in the top 50 per cent among thousands of riders, and I thought, that’s not bad for a 54-year-old cancer victim — and I can do better yet.”

Don’t let age slow you down

‘Bob inspired me to get back on the bike’

Simon Lenton, 57, drew from Bob Munro’s courage to overcome major surgery and get back into cycling

“I’d bought a new bike in 2012 but riding it was just too painful because of a problem with my hips — severe osteoarthritis.

“I decided to get on with it and had both my hips replaced in November 2015, followed by six weeks of complete rest. On January 12, I went for my first ride, with Bob — I could actually ride! About a month later, I committed to take part in the charity ride.

“It took quite a lot of dedication and commitment, and Bob has been absolutely fantastic. His commitment to getting people signed up for the ride has been incredible. He regularly led us out on training rides and was never frustrated, always happy to wait, always encouraging.

“Having a target made a huge difference, and Bob’s very inspiring. It was great. Riding into Paris felt very emotional; thinking about everything we’d come through was extremely uplifting.
“Bob really has helped me get back one of the passions in my life.”