TWO friends brought together by their experiences of cancer have joined forces to raise funds to help beat the disease.

Matt Sinclair lives with chronic myeloid leukaemia - and his close friend Dr Vignir Helgason is a scientist researching treatments for the illness.

The men met through world-leading cancer specialist Professor Tessa Holyoake, who was Matt's doctor and Vignir's boss, who urged them to fundraise for the Paul O’Gorman Leukaemia Research Centre.

Now, nearly 15 years of friendship later, they are continuing their efforts by taking part in a special Race For Life weekend for Cancer Research UK.

Both are spurred on by knowing the difference research can make to people's life, with Matt especially grateful to enjoy life with his wife and two daughters who were born against the odds.

Matt, from Milngavie, said: “I owe my life to research.

"I’m fitter than I’ve ever been, I’ve done really well in my career, and I have two beautiful daughters.

"That’s why I want to give something back, and I’ve signed up with Vignir to take part in A Very 2020 Race For Life.

"Even though we’re having to do it differently in 2020, nothing is going to stop us raising money to help beat cancer.

"I want to reach out to people going through cancer right now, to show that while we may all still be apart, we can unite with a common goal to fund life-saving research.”

The dad-of-two, who is originally from Sydney, Australia, was diagnosed in October 2005 after he noticed a swelling in his stomach and some bruising after a game of rugby that didn’t go away.

Wife Karen’s grandmother convinced him he should see a doctor, and he was invited for a blood test at Glasgow’s Western Infirmary.

He said: “I went for the blood test then, later that day, I’d just finished a meeting and I picked up a voicemail asking me to call the hospital.

"The doctor asked me to come straight back in to see her, but it didn’t click with me that something could be seriously wrong.

"When she told me I had chronic myeloid leukaemia, it completely knocked the wind out of me.

"I called my wife and she guessed straight away.

"She said she could hear it in my voice.”

Matt was told that his best option was a bone marrow transplant.

His brother and sister in Australia were tested and, while they were a match for one another, neither was a match for Matt.

Engaged to Karen at the time, the couple brought their wedding plans forward by six months in case Matt had to go into hospital for a bone marrow transplant with another donor.

Devastatingly, they were also told Matt was unlikely to be able to have children.

Then his doctor suggested trying a new drug that had just launched, imatinib, one of the first tyrosine kinase inhibitors.

Cancer Research UK scientists played a leading role in the development of this new drug and supported the clinical trials that brought it to market.

Tests showed Matt was responding well to the new treatment.

And despite the doctor’s warning that they wouldn’t be able to have a family, in 2007, he and Karen were delighted to welcome a baby girl, Chloe.

Little sister Holly was born three years later, in 2010.

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Matt has since been treated with two further tyrosine kinase inhibitor drugs and, now on a drug called nilotinib, his cancer levels are very low and he lives a normal life with the disease.

He said: “My results on the new drug have been phenomenal. It’s killed off most of the residual leukaemia cells in my body – the numbers are barely quantifiable at all.”

Scientist Vignir, 45, and head of sales Matt, 42, were encouraged by world-leading cancer specialist Professor Tessa Holyoake, who died from breast cancer in 2017, to help raise funds for the Paul O’Gorman Leukaemia Research Centre at Glasgow University.

Professor Holyoake was Matt’s doctor at the time, and Vignir was a member of her research team.

The bond between the two men was strengthened when Vignir supported Matt through a Three Peaks Challenge fundraiser in 2007, to climb Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon in 24 hours.

Matt said: “Scafell Pike was horrendous.

"We were walking up it in the dark and I remember struggling near the top and Vignir grabbed me and said: ‘you can do it.’

"He pushed everyone along.

"Then, when we got to Wales, we were warned by the rangers that it was too windy on Snowdon, but Vignir said: ‘We’ve got to do it, we’ve come this far.’

"Because of him, we cracked on and we did it, and we raised about £15,000.”

Vignir added: “There was no way after two mountains, we were stopping. Luckily, we did finish it, and it was a great trip.”

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Now the pair are turning their fundraising sights on generating support for Cancer Research UK.

Scotland’s biggest Race for Life was due to take place on Glasgow Green on Sunday, May 17.

But the event was among 400 mass participation events organisers Cancer Research UK cancelled this year to protect the country’s health during the Covid-19 outbreak.

The charity is expecting a staggering £160 million drop in income in the year ahead with a £44m cut to life-saving research funding already.

Supporters are now asked to complete their own Race for Life 5K in their nearest green space on September 26.

They plan to take part outdoors either alone or in small, socially distanced groups - but all on the same day - to help people with cancer.

Supporters can visit and sign up free for a “Very 2020 Race for Life.”

Vignir said: “I’ve really enjoyed taking part in fundraising events and getting to know Matt through them.

"And now, more than ever, we need the public’s support to raise money so we can continue with our research and help more people survive cancer in the future.

"That’s why we’re calling on people in Glasgow to join Matt and me and do 5k their way for Race For Life on September 26.”

Vignir is a scientist at the Cancer Research UK Glasgow Centre at Glasgow University, where he leads a team of researchers working to find new and better ways to treat chronic myeloid leukaemia, a type of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow.

He and his team are this month embarking on a six-year programme of research, funded by Cancer Research UK, to develop new treatments that could overcome drug resistance in people with the disease.

Vignir, from Hillhead, said: “We are looking at two different ways to try and overcome resistance to cancer drugs – how the leukaemic stem cells use a self-recycling process to survive, and how they generate energy to survive.

"Our hope is that, if we can find drugs that interfere with these processes in the stem cells, more people can live with chronic myeloid leukaemia in the future without relapsing.”

Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life, in partnership with Tesco, is a series of 5K, 10K, Pretty Muddy and Pretty Muddy Kids events which last year in Glasgow raised £653,905.

A live broadcast on the Cancer Research UK Race for Life Facebook page at 9.30am on September 26 will include an energiser from a fitness expert as well as inspirational messages of support from people who have been through cancer.

Participants are then free to set off on their own Race for Life. Organisers are also inviting participants to share photos and videos on social media using the hashtag, #Very2020RaceForLife.

Dr Victoria Steven, Cancer Research UK’s spokewoman in Scotland, said: “Cancer is still happening right now and we won’t let 2020 stop us.

“Vital cancer research has been delayed this year.

"Even though we have to Race for Life differently in 2020, nothing’s going to stop us running, walking or jogging to raise money and help beat cancer.

"This is going to be a very 2020 Race for Life but together we will still beat cancer.”

See or call 0300 123 0770. Join in and share with #Very2020RaceForLife