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Chris Harrop: Conquering the North Pole with CML

written by

Leukaemia Care, Charity

  • Chris Harrop 2 pg 10

This is a story that starts in November 2014, when I should have been well into my training programme for a ski expedition to the North Pole the following April. The trip was due to start at the edge of the polar ice sheet at around 89 degrees North. I had been building up to this trip for several years, having completed a Ray Mears Arctic survival course in the far north of Sweden and a Nordic Skiing course in Norway.

But I was struggling with the training as I constantly felt tired, lacked energy, was experiencing night sweats and was starting to find bruises. Mostly, I put this down to a hectic life. In addition to working full time for Marshalls plc, I was also a Director of the Ethical Trading Initiative and the Chair of the UN Global Compact in the UK. At one stage, my youngest daughter was concerned I was being ‘bullied’ at work, so bad were my bruises.

As is the case in many of these situations, it was my wife Jo that finally insisted that if I was to go to the Pole I had to have a full medical. So, I booked a check-up at my local BUPA Wellness Centre.

To me, the medical went as expected. I was generally in good health, was told to drink less and exercise more, and the doctor would let me know if there was anything unusual in the blood tests in a few days’ time.

Two days later, standing in Glasgow railway station, I had a call from BUPA saying that I needed to see a haematologist urgently. When I pushed them for a reason, I was told that the results indicated some form of blood cancer. I was stunned. I then had a long journey back to Manchester, with virtually no mobile reception, and tried to arrange a doctor’s appointment with Jo’s help.

This was Thursday, and the following Monday I was sitting in front of a haematologist. The haematologist wasn’t quite sure why he was seeing me, until he was shown the full test results. This led to an appointment for a bone marrow biopsy, scheduled for two days later. I tried not to Google, but I did and wished I hadn’t.

Following the bone marrow biopsy, I was referred to Dr Mike Dennis, who was a specialist in myeloid leukaemia. On 12th December 2014, the diagnosis was confirmed as chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML). Treatment was oral chemotherapy, with a specialist type of drug called a tyrosine kinase inhibitor.

I started on imatinib, which unfortunately I was unable to tolerate, resulting in a short stay in the Christie in between Christmas and New Year 2014. I then changed to nilotinib which, over time and with the expertise and support of Dr Dennis, I was able to tolerate.

Clearly the expedition to the North Pole wasn’t possible, but the expedition leaders Annie and Eric at Polar Explorers supported my goal to get to the Pole and agreed to postpone the trip until I was stronger. To help keep me motivated, they arranged for their South Pole expedition to send me a message via Sat Phone on Christmas Day. Initially, I was off work for three months, but then with the help of my employer I started a phased return to work.

I was still aiming to ski to the North Pole, but I reluctantly accepted that I was not going to be strong enough to attempt the trip in 2016, especially with my nilotinib treatment requiring two hours of fasting before and an hour after twice a day, making the ability to consume enough calories on the ice a challenge.

Throughout this time, Dr Dennis continued to fine tune my dose of nilotinib to ensure the optimum response. Balancing the need to achieve the treatment milestone and the side effects of the drug, this allowed me to work full time and gain some form of normality.

But my drive to get to the North Pole remained and, with the agreement of Annie and Eric at Polar Explorers, they decided to help me achieve my goal and get to the North Pole, albeit flying rather than skiing.

The challenge then wasn’t health or flight bookings, clothing or equipment; it was insurance. Who would insure someone with leukaemia to go to the North Pole with the required level of emergency evacuation cover? Fortunately, at one of Leukaemia CARE’s conferences, I was given a list of companies who arranged travel insurance for leukaemia patients and, after many phone calls, I managed to arrange cover.

Originally, I was planning to go to the North Pole for a combination of adventure and to see the impact of climate change, a subject I am passionate about. However, after everything I had gone through, I decided to take the opportunity to raise money for Leukaemia CARE and set up a JustGiving page.

On 10th April 2017, I left my wife at Manchester Airport to start my adventure. My trip involved flying Manchester to Oslo, Oslo to Tromso and Tromso to Svalbard. I then had to take a Russian transport from Svalbard to Barneo Ice Camp, and finally a Russian helicopter from Barneo Ice Camp to the North Pole.

I reached the North Pole on 13th April 2017 and stayed overnight before starting the return journey. The temperature at the Pole was -39C and, such is the changing nature of the weather in those extremes, the ice runway was closed due to bad weather the day after I left and then had to be closed for the season due to the ice cracking less than a week later.

To set my achievement into context, there are more people who reach the summit of Everest than visit the North Pole every year.

Looking back to before I was diagnosed, I knew there was something wrong; I just didn’t feel right and thanks to Jo’s insistence I had that medical. The state of my blood and progress of the CML was such that it was pretty certain that I would not have come back from the North Pole alive.

Getting to the Pole was a major target for me. The drugs are great at keeping the CML under control but come with side effects that make normal living an extra challenge. Everyone is different, but for me it’s constant bone pain, facial neuralgia, and neuropathy affecting my hands. Worst of all is the fatigue that no amount of espresso or chocolate will shift and that feels like I am wearing a lead suit; it just slows things down and makes moving an extra effort.

Going forward, I am convinced that in time there will be better treatments. Until then, it’s a mental game and I simply refuse to give in (most days).