Big C Stories: Robert Chalmers

Location: Norwich

Condition: Carcinoma

What happened

Robert Chalmers, chairman of Ashton KCJ, travelled to the Congo in September and raised £1,200 for Big C as part of the trip. This is his story.

“I have always had a fascination with exploration and especially Africa, which remained uncharted by Europeans right up to the last quarter of the 19th century. This was when John Speke identified the source of the Nile at Lake Victoria and Stanley traced the Congo, the other great river of Africa, from near Lake Tanganyika to the Atlantic coast, losing all of his European companions on the way. When I saw that a company called Wild Frontiers was offering a trip down the Congo, I had no hesitation in placing my deposit.

“However, in February 2011, I was diagnosed with a carcinoma in my left leg. I saw the results of the MRI scan showing the white mass of the tumour, and the offending section that was causing the problem, and had much of what was to follow explained to me by the consultants; but when they first talk to you about your cancer, it’s difficult to take it all in.

“I was operated on in April at the Royal Marsden and then went back to the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital for radiotherapy from June to August.

“I was impressed by the fact that, despite losing one quarter of my thigh muscle, I was still able to walk immediately after the operation and I found the whole process and requirements of the 6 and a half weeks of daily radiotherapy an interesting experience.

“However, my main concern throughout was being able to go ahead with the trip down the Congo, which was to start a mere 4 weeks after radiotherapy was to finish.

“I also decided that the trip would be a good opportunity to try and raise some money for a few charities, and spoke with the Norfolk Community Foundation who helped me set things up.

“In the event my leg stood up to the treatment and although I didn’t exactly have my consultant’s blessing, I wasn’t told I couldn’t go either.

“I flew out to Nairobi on 8 September, and then went on to Kampala where I met my companions for the trip for the first time before driving to and across the Congolese border. The Congo, and eastern Congo in particular, is regarded as being off limits as far as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is concerned, and this was also the first – and possibly to be a one off trip – for Wild Frontiers, which made it all the more interesting.

“As we’d expected, it took a good few hours to cross that border and we then travelled over land to Kisangani, a drive of about 500 miles in three stages. One day took 15 hours, and the final stretch took 19 hrs. On the way we stopped to walk into the forest and camp overnight with a tribe of pygmies.

“At Kisangani, of Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart Of Darkness’ fame, we began travelling down the great river by boat. We covered the 1,000 miles to Kinshasa in 19 days,  camping each night in villages along the shore and on the many islands that make up much of the river. All the while we were very conscious of the Congo’s brutal history, which sadly still continues to this day and which was brought home to us when we were boarded by an army gunboat. Our Congolese companions were clearly petrified, knowing of the soldiers’ reputation.  Our Belgian captain, on the other hand, was very composed and remained seated while the army captain strutted down the boat, very much aware of the affect he was having on everyone.

“On the way we were also able to visit towns, schools, hospitals and markets and see something both of what life is like now and the shadows of what had been; such as for Veronica Cecil, who in her book ‘Drums on the Night Air’ recounts her experiences in the Congo. She had to flee, while expecting her second child, from the massacres by the Simbas and others that ravaged the area in 1964.

“My only regret is that excessive caution on my part prevented me from swimming in the river when we crossed the equator and trying my hand with a pirogue (the local cut out canoe), as my companions did, due to the vulnerability of my leg to infection.

“I found the experience immensely interesting and, in the event, none of the concerns about the country and its politics or any health issues, including my leg, caused any problems and so it is now back to normality – whatever that may be here compared to living conditions in the Congo – and getting back to full health and fitness.

“Cancer is such a big word.  It is so unique to each individual.  I have been very fortunate and I am now far more aware than I ever was of the vast spectrum of cancers and the statistic that at some stage 40 per cent of people will live with cancer.

“I am also very grateful for the generosity of my friends and  colleagues who helped me to raise the identified target, on the back of this trip, for the Norfolk Community Foundation, Watsan, a charity providing safe water and sanitation for people in S W Uganda, and of course for Big C.”