Riding a bike is nothing new for Robert Conley, but the journey he’ll undertake to raise money for MUSC Hollings Cancer Center during LOWVELO on Nov. 6 will be especially meaningful. That’s because two years ago, Conley didn’t know if the day would ever arrive.
Conley, an IT project manager, husband and father of three, is an avid outdoorsman. He started routinely riding his bike when he moved to South Carolina 16 years ago. Following an off-road ride in February 2019, Conley noticed something wasn’t right.
“I had fallen a couple of times and noticed some pain. That took me to my primary care doctor,” he said.
The doctor referred him to a gastroenterologist for imaging. Thinking the pain and pressure he was feeling was simply from a pulled muscle, Conley waited patiently for the results.
Several days later, the phone rang. It was Friday, and Conley never expected to hear the words his doctor said – ‘You have cancer.’
The diagnosis and treatment
Conley was diagnosed with stage 4 pseudomyxoma peritonei, a rare cancer that doctors later discovered had originated in his appendix.
“I asked had it been there for a while, and the doctor said yes, it was most likely there for a long time, which to me was bad news,” he said.
On July 9, 2019, Conley underwent surgery to remove his appendix, spleen, gallbladder, colon and about 20% percent of his stomach and a treatment called hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy, which involves heating a sterile chemotherapy solution and continuously circulating into the abdomen to target cancer cells.
In these cases, prior to the use of chemotherapy, the surgeon first tries to remove any tumors within the affected area. The chemotherapy is then used to catch, and kill, any remaining cancerous cells.
“I was in the hospital 12 or 13 days after,” Conley said. “It’s incredibly invasive. I don’t always think back to that time, but I do remember that pain the first few nights was something I hadn’t experienced and wouldn’t wish on anybody.”
Following surgery, Conley was referred to hematology and oncology specialist Daniel Reuben, M.D., at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center for chemotherapy. Conley received six rounds of chemotherapy at Hollings between September and November 2019.
It was during this treatment that Conley was first introduced to the LOWVELO ride to benefit Hollings Cancer Center. Unable physically to ride in the event at the time, Conley instead focused on volunteering.
“I thought this would be a great way to give back a tiny bit and connect with the community,” he said. “I had the treatments and the great experiences at Hollings, and I really was excited to do it.”
The road to recovery and preparing for the century ride
Two years later, Conley said it is his turn to participate in LOWVELO. Since treatment ended, his prognosis has improved, despite being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. He continues annual scans, however they have become less frequent.
“Originally, I was getting scanned quarterly and had all clean scans. Last year I got scanned three times and this year, twice so far. All scans have come back clean.”
The initial surgery and subsequent chemotherapy at Hollings did take a toll on Conley’s body. Standing at 6 feet, 3 inches, his weight dropped to 135 pounds, which took a toll on both his overall health and energy level. He has since gained back around 30 pounds, but he does face other challenges.
“One of the side effects is keeping my iron levels high,” he said. “I’ve actually had to have an infusion once.”
Conley now pays a lot more attention to what he can, and cannot, eat. However, he isn’t letting any of the challenges stop him from achieving his life goals. In the fall, he plans to compete in a triathlon and then complete the LOWVELO century ride. To prepare, Conley said he rides his bike often and averages 100 miles each week.
“I just love the medical community and people getting together for a cause. I think MUSC is the leader in Charleston,” Conley said.
Today, Conley is especially grateful for the team at Hollings and the greater Charleston community. He said his diagnosis reemphasized the idea of living in the moment and cherishing every day you have with loved ones.
Rather than worrying about how fast he can complete LOWVELO, Conley said he’s focusing on the mission of the annual ride. He looks forward to raising money to help others who may be undergoing their own battles with cancer.
“I’m just totally excited to be on the bike, smile and just take it in,” Conley said. “People there are uplifting. I just remember in 2019 that everybody was pulling for everybody. Everybody was just a community, and I think MUSC has the power to do that, and I love to be a part of that.”