Asked by his oncologist Professor Ruth Plummer for help in raising £500,000 to equip a new cancer drug trials centre at the Northern Centre for Cancer Care, at Newcastle Freeman Hospital, he responded by setting up a charity to tackle the disease head-on.
Barely weeks after he launched the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation in March 2008, the target was reached and donations kept pouring in. In February 2009, Sir Bobby officially opened the Sir Bobby Robson Cancer Trials Research Centre, which today is at the forefront of research into the disease.
More than 1,000 patients have been treated on clinical trials since the centre opened and 1,000 more have been enrolled in other research studies, studying the biology and genetics of cancer to help develop and improve treatments.
The foundation, which has raised £7.3m, aims to find better ways to detect and treat cancer - and to do so while directly helping patients with the disease. It also helps fund projects which enhance cancer patient care. Patrons include Alan Shearer, Niall Quinn, Steve Gibson, Delia Smith and Mick Mills.
In the last six years, the foundation has been able to equip the Sir Bobby Robson Cancer Trials Research Centre and fund three-year training posts for a specialist clinical drug trials nurse and doctor.
The centre brings together all the clinical research staff who are working to improve cancer treatments into one purpose-built unit with a clinical treatment area, with laboratory space and offices.
It offers patients access to early trials and potential new treatments and works closely with the Imaging Research Centre to improve diagnosis and study the effects of new drugs.
Often these are pioneering human trials, with members of staff coordinating trials of drugs at later stages of development - working with the National Cancer Networks to ensure patients get offered the best options for treatment.
There has been a steady increase in the number of clinical trials open to recruitment, now standing at 62, and staffing in the centre has risen from 27 to 40 now. Every patient who undertakes an early-phase experimental drug trial in the centre has terminal cancer and knows that standard treatment will not prove effective for them.
In some cases, patients are aware from the outset that the treatment they receive in the centre will not benefit them at all – but that the information gained from their participation will help someone else facing cancer in the future. They are, as Sir Bobby put it, “utterly selfless and brave”.
In November 2012, the foundation announced its largest funding contribution to date, £850,000, to help purchase the latest generation in stereotactic radiotherapy surgery.
The Varian TrueBeam STx with Novalis radiosurgery – the the second of its type in the UK - will dramatically improve the accuracy of radiotherapy treatment for tumours which are currently inoperable.
In September 2013, the foundation announced the purchase of the ImageStream Imaging Flow Cytometer, called an ImagestreamX (ISx), for £438,000.
This allows scientists to see cancer cells that may be circulating in a patient’s blood and is able to analyse up to 4,000 individual cells a second. Most recently, the charity funded a cancer support specialist, who will play a key role within the Maggie’s Centre, just outside the Northern Centre for Cancer Care. Maggie’s Newcastle provides support for people living with cancer, and their friends and families, who are facing tough decisions and exhausting treatment.
Sir Bobby’s son Mark Robson said: “We have to tackle cancer. We have to keep on attacking it.
“That was dad’s philosophy. He was an extraordinarily tough man and never let it get him down and took it full on – even in his final illness when he set up the foundation.
“He got on with it – attacked it – and never complained. That is our legacy. One of the core strengths of the foundation is what people thought of dad as a person.”