Pete Sampras’ ascendency in the world of professional tennis was electrifying. When Sampras started his career as a teenager in 1988, he finished the year ranked No. 97 in the world after starting the year at No. 893. Sampras cut his teeth on the court in his first year playing against players older than him – a strategy that clearly paid off. Five years after turning professional, he became the number one tennis player in the world.
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Throughout the 90s he continued to dominate, winning 14 Grand Slam singles, seven Wimbledon, two Australian Open and a five US Open titles.
His success is made even more astonishing in light of the fact that he lives with thalassemia.
Thalassaemia is the name for a group of inherited conditions that affect a substance in the blood called haemoglobin, according to the NHS.
“People with thalassaemia produce either no or too little haemoglobin, which is used by red blood cells to carry oxygen around the body,” explains the NHS.
It mainly affects people of Mediterranean, south Asian, southeast Asian and Middle Eastern origin.
This may help to explain why Sampras, who has a greek heritage, inherited the condition.
There are different types of thalassaemia, which can be divided into alpha and beta thalassaemias.
Beta thalassaemia major is the most severe type.
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It has previously been revealed that Pete has the more severe type, which means he is short of oxygen when exerting himself.
According to the NHS, the inherited condition can also cause pounding, fluttering or irregular heartbeats (palpitations) and pale skin caused by the lack of haemoglobin.
Too much iron in the body – caused by the regular blood transfusions used to treat anaemia – can also cause problems with the heart, liver and hormone levels if untreated, warns the health body.
How is thalassaemia treated?
Thalassaemia usually requires lifelong treatment with blood transfusions and medication.
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According to Mayo Clinic, more severe forms of thalassemia often require frequent blood transfusions, possibly every few weeks.
To ward off the risks posed by too much iron in the body, a person may have to undergo chelation therapy, says the health body.
This is a treatment to remove excess iron from your blood.
“To help rid your body of the extra iron, you might need to take an oral medication, such as deferasirox (Exjade, Jadenu) or deferiprone (Ferriprox),” explains Mayo Clinic.
According to the NHS, stem cell or bone marrow transplants are the only cure for thalassaemia, but they’re not done very often because of the significant risks involved.
As the health body explains, stem cells are produced in bone marrow, the spongy tissue found in the centre of some bones, and have the ability to develop into different types of blood cells.
For a stem cell transplant, stem cells from a healthy donor are given through a drip into a vein.
“The main risk is graft versus host disease, which is a life-threatening problem where the transplanted cells start to attack the other cells in your body,” says the NHS.
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