The greatest test of all: Alan Igglesden on surviving a brain tumor

When Alan Igglesden learnt he had a brain tumour, he feared the worst. Ten years on, the former cricketer is fit – thanks to a new drug treatment
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Alan Igglesden was no stranger to hospitals during his career as a Kent and England cricketer. "I've had three slipped discs, five knee operations, a hernia and two stress fractures of the shin, and I threw my shoulder out more times than I can remember," says the former fast bowler.

But nothing could prepare him for what happened after he gave up playing professionally. "In June 1999, about a year after I gave up professional cricket, I started having a fit while I was asleep," the 43-year-old says. "My wife Sara put me in the recovery position and called the ambulance. I was discharged the next morning, but I had no recollection of what had happened."

The next few weeks saw Igglesden struggling to come to terms with the idea that he might be epileptic, but when he went for an MRI scan – standard medical procedure for anyone who has suffered a seizure for the first time – the news was much, much worse. "I went from thinking I had epilepsy to finding out I had a brain tumour. I'd had a month to try to come terms with having epilepsy at the age of 34, and then, when I was told I had a brain tumour, it was absolutely horrific.

"I wasn't offered counselling or rushed into treatment – it doesn't happen that fast. It was a month or two before I could see a specialist and have a biopsy. That's when I was told that the tumour was inoperable," he says.

"It was the worst moment of my life. I automatically thought I had just six months to live. I felt my body go ice cold. Sara and I were distraught. We went into the car park and cracked up in each other's arms, crying our eyes out." Igglesden had a grade two oligodendroglioma – serious enough to be treated with radiotherapy but below the level classed as malignant.

But, although Igglesden thought his diagnosis was a death sentence, nearly 10 years later he is alive, well and playing cricket regularly in his job as a sports master at Sutton Valence school in Kent. "When I was diagnosed, I never thought that almost a decade on I'd be teaching sport," he says. "About a year after the diagnosis, I went to the school to speak to them about maybe doing some coaching and I ended up starting the very next day. I've been there ever since."

One of the reasons why Igglesden is doing so well has to be his attitude to life. "I've always been very positive and it's in my nature to be laid-back, which has often helped. In terms of the future, I just try to take each day as it comes. The tumour doesn't stop me doing anything at all and although bungee jumping isn't part of the equation, I've managed to go hang-gliding in Turkey and cage-diving among great white sharks in South Africa."

Another reason is that he had the good fortune to meet a cricket-crazy cancer specialist, Professor Geoff Pilkington, who had just the drug to treat him. "I saw Alan's name come in on one of the biopsy forms, and as I was a bit of a cricket fanatic I popped over to have a chat," Pilkington says. "Alan had had radiation therapy but needed something else. Conventional drug therapy can be rather toxic and for someone as fit and well and strong as Alan, that would have knocked him for six."

Pilkington prescribed Igglesden a drug called chloripramine. "It's actually a tricyclic antidepressant drug used for patients with obsessive compulsive syndrome or clinical depression, which is about 40 years old," he says. "Basically, the drug tells tumour cells to commit suicide. We've been treating a number of people with it, including some with grade four – the most serious – tumours. The mean survival time without the drug is usually around three months, but we've had some of those patients surviving for seven years."

Igglesden has been taking the drug for four years and is pleased with the results. "It's helping – initially, the tumour I had was, ironically, about the size of a cricket ball, but now it's only the size of a golf ball."

It's thanks to Pilkington's research at Portsmouth University that this potentially life-extending drug is helping Igglesden and others like him. "Although a lot of the projects I'm working on are at laboratory level at the moment, they are the sorts of things that will, in time, translate into medical developments," Pilkington says. "But without the investment in these sorts of studies, nothing is going to happen."

As with everything, money is at the root of successful tumour treatment. "It's very difficult to get any clinical trials up and running on chloripramine because the drug is as cheap as aspirin and is out of patent, so the big drug companies just don't want to know," he says. "They wouldn't make any money out of it. One company wanted us to go and look at some archival drugs that had been studied many years ago and hadn't gone on to become antidepressants, but that would put our research back 10 years. It's a sad world."

What is downright tragic is that, despite advances in medical science, survival rates for brain tumours are little better than they were 40 years ago. "If you look at the survival time for brain tumour patients now and going back into the 1960s, there's precious little difference," Pilkington says. "We've had radiotherapy come in, we've had chemotherapy and new drugs, but there are quality of life issues with these things so there hasn't been a huge net gain. We need to look constantly for new approaches in treating tumours."

So the University of Portsmouth, where Pilkington is head of research, has joined forces with the British charity Brainstrust in a bid to create the UK's first dedicated laboratory-based tumour research centre.

According to Brainstrust, there are 6,000 new cases of brain tumour every year in the UK. In spite of this, funding for this kind of project is hard to come by. "I've been studying brain tumours since 1971, and I can tell you that there was more money to fund research in the early Seventies that there is now," Pilkington says. "The EU calls it an 'orphan disease', meaning that it is not as prevalent as other cancers and therefore requires less funding."

While he remains fit and well, Igglesden is aware that research remains vital. Since he discovered that he had a brain tumour, three of his friends have been diagnosed with similar conditions and none has survived. "One was Dicky Davis, who signed professional forms with Kent on the same day I did. He got a brain tumour after me, it was treated and disappeared, and then he got another one, which took his life," he says. "Then my car sponsor got one and died, and another friend developed one and died, and then the same thing happened to his wife. That's four people in a small circle of friends. It's a spur to keep fighting it."

In his bid to raise funds, Igglesden says that "we're left doing quiz nights and balls and golf days to raise money for research, which is appalling". But, in spite of everything, he remains an optimist. "There's no point in sitting and moping about it. I have my moments, obviously, but I don't let it effect what I do day-to-day at all. It doesn't stop me being a happy person."

Mind and matter: the facts about brain tumours

*There are four main types of brain tumour. The most common are gliomas – tumours of the tissue which binds together the nerve cells and nerve fibres. Meningiomas are benign tumours of the brain coverings. Haemangiomas are tumours of the brain's blood vessels and can cause seizures and partial paralysis. Lastly, pituitary adenomas are tumours of the pituitary glands.

*Some brain tumours are benign – non-invasive and remaining at the site of origin. However, the brain is enclosed in a rigid casing, so anything growing inside is very likely to do harm by pressing on brain structures. Caught in time, benign tumours may be removed.

*Some brain tumours are congenital – due to abnormal development before birth.

*Children aged five to nine and those in late middle age are most likely to develop a brain tumour.

*A quarter of cancers starting elsewhere in the body will get into the brain, by metastasis, if left to develop. For skin cancer, this figure rises to 40 per cent.

*Brain tumour patients have poorer survival rates than breast cancer sufferers.

*Treatment is by surgical removal of the tumour, and often also with radiotherapy. Some patients may also have chemotherapy.

*Advanced gliomas may be treated with carmustine implants once the cancer has been removed. These slow or stop the growth of cancerous cells.

Information from Brainstrust and the NHS