A RUNNER will take on the Simplyhealth Great North Run despite suffering from a rare blood cancer – which he shares with his brother.
Keith Ambrose was diagnosed with polycythaemia, which affects one in 100,000 people, and was astounded to learn that his brother Stewart was to be diagnosed with the same condition, in what doctors have described as ‘just not possible'.
The 62-year-old, from Diss, in Norfolk, will participate in his ninth Simplyhealth Great North Run on Sunday, 10 September, and the first since his diagnosis in May 2016.
Polycythaemia is not hereditary, and is caused by a gene mutation, which causes bone marrow to produce too many red blood cells. This makes the blood thicker and less able to travel through blood vessels and organs.
Keith's blood was made up of more than 70% red blood cells, and was told that it was amazing that he hadn't had a heart attack – and had he taken a flight during this time he would have certainly died.
He said: “I had lots of different symptoms including itching skin after bathing, bloodshot eyes and awful headaches that just wouldn't go away, which I later found out are all symptoms of this illness”.
“It all happened so quickly.
“It was a lot to take in. One minute you're a normal guy, next minute this happens.
“I was so fortunate that when I was eventually referred to a haematologist it was to Professor Bowles, who immediately informed me that he knew what was wrong and explained how the illness is treated.
“This man and his prompt actions without any doubt saved my life.
“The professor explained that the treatment involved removing pints of blood and because of my condition he suggested starting right now.
“Some weeks later during one of my many visits, the professor told me that my red blood cell count was the highest that he had even seen or heard of anyone that was still standing and that it is highly likely that my fitness was what saved me.”
The condition is rare enough, but the Ambrose family were shocked to hear that his younger sibling Stewart was to be diagnosed with exactly the same form of cancer.
Keith said: “It's the first time that two people who are related have had the same condition, apparently.
“I knew my brother was having some of the same symptoms, so I said to the doctors that I need to tell my brother what test he needs to have in order to see if he has the same thing.
“The doctors said that there's no chance at all of this happening. It's like lightning striking twice in the same place, it's just not possible.
“Stewart has been struggling but he's getting there. The fact I had the diagnosis which prompted him to be tested definitely saved his life too.”
Treatment for the condition involves having large amounts of blood taken, and Keith is given chemotherapy medication daily to suppress the production of red blood cells.
Keith was able to achieve greater things as a runner, as the increased number of red blood cells allows the body to transport more oxygen to muscles, increasing stamina and therefore performance.
Following treatment, Keith, while being no longer at risk of death through cardiac arrest or pulmonary embolism, has no iron in his blood and his running performances are largely down to whether his body is having a good day or not.
He said: “ I am constantly fighting what my body wants to do.
“I've been back doing some running, but it is out of my control.
“Before, I felt like superman. Now, I have no iron in my body at all and it has to stay that way. I can go so far then my body tells me ‘no' and I have to stop, then walk a while and then I can go again.
“I used to be the bloke at the front waiting for everyone to finish, now I'm at the back.”
Despite the occasional setback, Keith believes he is feeling a lot better than he did when the condition was at its worst, and is relishing his return to the world's biggest half marathon in less than a months' time.
He said: “I feel as good as I have felt for years, and I'm getting through it with the support of my running friends.
“I'm a positive guy. I want to keep sticking at it, and I am getting fitter each week.
“I love the Great North Run – the people are great.
“We're making a weekend of it, the family will all come up and support me. The North-East is a great place.
“It's an event I always look forward to. I thought I had done my last one but I'm so happy to be coming back.”
The Simplyhealth Great North Run takes place on Sunday, 10 September and is broadcast live on BBC One HD from 9.30am until 1.30pm.