Robert Handley was nine years old when he stepped into his first cave. It was a small cavern known as Higginbotham #1 near Frankford, West Virginia. Bob went with his uncle and two cousins. Since it was 1937, the group relied on pine-knot torches to light the way, rather than the high-powered electric headlamps used today. He remembers wiggling his way through a little tunnel and popping out of a hole in the floor of a large passage full of calcite formations. (Calcite is a common mineral, and the primary mineral component of underground cave formations called stalactites and stalagmites.)
After investigating the stalactites and stalagmites with his cousins, the group decided it was time to leave. But in searching for the hole through which theyd entered, they discovered that the cavern floor was dotted with holeseach one virtually identical to the next. The boys made some frantic attempts to find the way out, while trying to keep their rising panic in check. Finally, Bobs uncle, who had been waiting for them near the cave entrance, popped his head up through the right hole and asked what was keeping them.
The experience might have sent many a nine-year-old running for the light of day, determined to never again set foot underground. But for Bob, it was the beginning of a love affair with caves that has lasted over 60 years, surviving his battle with bone-marrow cancer, the near loss of his left arm, and a fall that left him classified as a quadriplegic.
Caves offer the only new frontier to the average human says Bob, who is in his mid 70s. To be first to set foot on ground that no other human has seen or touched is quite a challenge. Its a many faceted passion that draws me on.
There was ample reason to believe that Bob would not become a famous caver, or a world-record holder (in the 60-year-old division for climbing 100 feet of knotted rope), or even use his legs again. Why? In 1978, when he was building his own home near St. Albans, WV, he lost his balance framing a second floor wall and fell nine feet through an open ceiling. The fall broke his neck and left him unable to move. Though classified as a quadriplegic, he walked out of the hospital on crutches two months later. What saved him was the fact that his spinal chord had not swelled. The doctors couldnt explain it. But Bob believes that his general good health prior to the accident gave him a good base from which to recover. Caving, after all, is great exercise. Factoring in the boulders, precipices and crawls means that one mile covered underground is equivalent to 10 miles on surface terrain.
The accident happened April 17, 1978 and I caved again that fall, he remembers. It was one of the first things I wanted to do. And do it he did, with trips to exotic underground locations in Central America, China and Hawaii, even posting his all-time deepest descentthe 1,400-foot El Sotano in Mexico. The only lasting impact he noticed from the accident was that his stride had shortened. Once 63, Bob lost a full inch and a half of height when he broke his neck. (Three vertebrae were fused together.)
And, there were more physical challenges ahead. One July day in 1996, Bob fell asleep at the wheel of his Toyota, waking up just as he was about to clip an interstate highway edge marker. Startled, he jerked the vehicle to the left, then overcompensated to the right and ended up flipping his car. The drivers window broke in the process and his left elbow was severely crushed between the car and pavement. But fate had some mercies in storethe first person to arrive at the scene was a veterinarian, who knew how to splint the injury and stop the bleeding. After multiple surgeries, including an operation to splice tendons in his left wrist and allow more normal finger movement, Bob still cant turn his palm upward.
But limited hand mobility wasnt enough to keep him from caving. That same year, at 63, Bob traveled to Costa Rica to find and explore Miramar Cataraca. This time, instead of the normal killer pace that typically left his caving companions in the dust, Bob noticed that he was the one lagging behind the group. I was being out-walked, he says. No matter how hard I tried to exercise and get my stamina back, it didnt come.
By the spring of 1997, his endurance problem had been compounded by severe back pain and he began seeking medical opinions from a variety of doctors. After about six months and many x-rays, his bones were discovered to be deteriorating. In August, the official diagnosis was osteoporosis. For the next year, Bob followed treatment prescriptions for this degenerative bone disease, but in spite of his best efforts, he noticed a continued decline in his health. A trip to an endocrinologist in October of 1998 revealed the truth. Bob did have osteoporosis, but it was caused by multiple myeloma (cancer of the bone marrow). And it was quite advanced.
As a long-time Life Extension Foundation member, Bob was leery of going ahead with the chemotherapy and radiation treatments that his oncologist was prescribing. He called Life Extension, which okayed the chemo, but advised against radiation, recommending instead a radical and immediate overhaul in Bobs diet and supplement intake. Just as important, Life Extension gave Bob hope.
The first step in Bobs new regimen was a triple playmega soy extract, curcumin and clodronatedesigned specifically to attack immune-system cancer, which is sometimes called multiple myeloma. Soy and curcumin strongly enhance the efficacy of chemotherapy. Clodronate inhibits bone destruction, prevents fractures and relieves bone pain. Bob was also advised to cut back on vitamin C because it makes immune-system cancers worse by stimulating the immune system. As for diet, Life Extension endorsed fish and vegetables, but no sugar.
It worked. Within three months my entire outlook changed, says Bob. My ribs stopped cracking every time I sneezed or coughed and my old drive returned. Even more tangible evidence of his improvement began to appear. Bobs bone marrow aspiration (a procedure to measure the percentage of bone marrow affected by cancer) dropped from a high of 74% to 40% after three months. By July 2000, Bobs bone marrow aspiration showed the cancer to be in remission.
My oncologist claims credit for my improved condition, but I give credit to Life Extension for saving my life, Bob says, adding that a positive attitude and the support of friends helped as well. During his recovery, he also studied ways to develop his own thought processes so that he could will the cancer right out of his bones. I dont call it my cancer, he explains. I refer to is as the cancer or as an invader. It doesnt belong to me and I tell it to leave.
Now that the cancer has acquiesced, Bob has more time to devote to the things he loves. He is CEO of two philanthropic cave conservancies in Richmond, Virginia and manages two West Virginia cave conservancy properties. He writes regular articles for the local watershed newsletter, supports the Greenbrier Valley Theater, and is an active member of the Greenbrier Historical Society of Lewisburg, West Virginia. Hes also building another house and is looking forward to introducing his four grandchildren to the wonders of caving.
Then theres the annual New River Gorge Bridge Day when the State of West Virginia closes two lanes of the US 19 bridge to traffic and lets daredevils base jump, or rappel, the 800 feet to the river below. The last time Bob rappelled was in 1995. I like to hear the rope sing, he says. He aims to do it again.
In fact, there are a lot more things he wants to do and he plans to be around long enough to do them all. My favorite quote came from a public radio tee shirt, he deadpans. It said, [I was put] on earth to accomplish a certain number of things. Right now, Im so far behind Ill never die.