Cancer sufferer an inspiration

23:30, Dec 07 2012
Rob Henderson
FIGHTING ON: Nelson man Rob Henderson is living a full life despite having terminal bowel cancer.

Doctors didn't expect Robert Henderson to be alive this year, let alone still working fulltime and riding his motorcycle.

The 56-year-old Nelson Fulton Hogan worker was diagnosed with terminal cancer in October last year.

An avid motorcyclist for 42 years, a passion inspired by his grandfather, the legendary Burt Munro, Mr Henderson was told by his doctors they didn't think he would make last Christmas after a bad turn. The stage four cancer had begun in Mr Henderson's bowel and spread to his liver, meaning there were no surgical options of removing it.

"The weird thing is I'd actually known for about four years before that I was pretty unwell."

After moving to Nelson two years ago, Mr Henderson said he became more active and involved in outdoor activites. It was then he began to really notice the early fatigue along with his other symptoms, including bleeding.

Despite having previously mentioned these symptoms to GPs, tests continued to come back negative. Finally he demanded to see a specialist.


"When I finally got to the specialist I just told her ‘I have cancer'. For my wife's [Tracy] sake, it was a shock [when the results came back]. For me, I'm not saying I'm a brave person, I had a pretty philosophical outlook.

"We can't cure everything, we can't all live until we are 100 years of age."

This surprisingly upbeat outlook on life has led Mr Henderson to share his story in the hopes of helping others.

"Both partially for financial necessity and because I really enjoy my job, I've continued to work fulltime, much to the amazement of my oncologist."

Mr Henderson has stepped back from being a drainage department manager, but has a technical support role including work on the Maitai water pipeline project.

One of the first things he did after his diagnosis was speak to the staff at Fulton Hogan.

"It wasn't to gain sympathy, I just revealed my story to people, the things I should've done, how I should've been more proactive."

The consequence of that was that at least 20 people have since come to him to say they had been to the doctor.

Some had been diagnosed with an illness, others now had been able to put aside fears of something they thought was wrong.

"Everyone's got a fear of cancer, a fear of dying, that's a normal human instinct. If we can speak more about it and if people had a better understanding, they'd probably be more proactive in what they do - particularly guys, guys are absolutely rubbish at that sort of thing."

Mr Henderson took his Triumph for a spin to Invercargill and back for last month's Burt Munro Challenge, the increasingly popular motorsport event named in honour of his grandfather.

"The beauty of the event is you don't have to be a professional racer. It allows people in the general public to live a little bit of that Burt Munro dream.

"I was supposed to go last year but had a pretty bad turn with my health. I'd always planned to compete, but medically I can't - I can't do that to Tracy."

Although his grandfather died when Mr Henderson was young, he did remember Mr Munro coming to stay at the family home in Auckland before and after he travelled to the US.

"I had the privilege of sitting on his bike as a youngster [and] much to my parents' consternation, he inspired a love of motorcycles at a very early age."

Mr Henderson said over the years he and Tracy had done a lot of touring in both New Zealand and Australia. However, when he got diagnosed, he didn't trust himself to ride anymore.

"I couldn't deal with hurting Tracy or someone in the public."

As a result he sold their Harley touring bike and his Triumph sports bike. But in February this year, after he began responding well to treatment, the pull of the road crept back.

"So I had to go and buy another bike [another Triumph]. It was really tough," he joked.

While Mr Henderson has heard many a cliche of creating a bucket list, the terminal diagnosis has not left him with any major life regrets.

"I do have other medical complications, [international] travel is awkward and I can't get insurance. To be honest, I love my country and there's so much to see and do here still.

"I've had a fantastic life, done a bit of travel overseas, worked in amazing places and seen amazing things. I don't have any regrets . . . and I can still eat and drink, the important things in life."

He didn't feel sorry for himself, because there were always people worse off.

"There's too little time left to be unhappy and dwell on it."

The Nelson Mail