SURROUNDED by his immediate family on a family holiday in Spain, Riding Mill resident John Caine was at his happiest.

But posing for a family photo among his four children and his six grandchildren in Spain this summer made him reflective of how grateful he was to be around to sample the joys his growing family brings.

Rewind to 1999 and John, a former England runner and a founding member of the Great North Run team in 1981, was diagnosed with a life-threatening cancerous tumour on his stomach.

Under the expert care of consultant Prof. Mike Griffin, John (73) was operated on and underwent a heavy course of chemotherapy on his road to recovery.

To mark 20 years since the life-saving operation, and to say thank you for Prof. Griffin and his team at Ward 36 of Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary, John recently enlisted the help of his sporting mates to raise money to support the hospital’s Oesophago-Gastric Cancer Unit, which saved his life.

He has just completed the challenging, 500-mile Camino Francés, as part of the Camino de Santiago, from St Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees to Galicia, where it is believed one of Jesus’ apostles, St James, is buried.

John was joined on the walk by two Olympic silver medallist runners, Brendan Foster, the founder of Great North Run, and Ian Stewart, as well as friends Eric Wilkins and Andrew Weaver.

John said: “There’s no other way to say it; if it hadn’t been for the people in the RVI 20 years ago, I simply wouldn’t be here today.

“We had a family holiday in June and my children and grandchildren were there, and we got a photo. That prompted me to do the walk as I look at that photo and think there would be a pink shirt missing from the picture if not for those surgeons. I would never have met my grandchildren.

“I had a dreadful year in 1991 when I went into hospital for an ulcer. They diagnosed an ulcer but revealed that it was growing on top of a tumour.

“Prof. Griffin took my case on and took me under his care under Ward 36, and about a month later took my stomach out. I owe my life to him.

“I always tell people I received two bits of big news that year. Some bad news that I had stomach cancer but some good news that we had one of the world’s best units on my doorstep. I felt so grateful for that.”

At the time of his diagnosis in February 1991, John was working with his childhood friend Brendan Foster at the Great North Run following jobs as a PE teacher, the manager of Gateshead Stadium and for global sportswear company Nike.

Among all the horrible days he experienced during his recuperation, one particular positive moment will remain with him forever.

He said: “I was lying in my hospital bed in Newcastle with tubes everywhere coming out of my body when the door opened to reveal a group of visitors.

“It was my old friend Jos Hermens, the 10,000m world record holder, a young Jon Ridgeon, who is now chief executive of the IAAF, and Ethiopian megastar Haile Gebrselassie, the world’s best ever distance runner, had come to cheer me up.

“They were in town for a press conference at Gateshead Stadium and took the trouble and time to support me during a pretty dark time, and it was pretty inspirational.”

The visit of three of the world’s top runners at the time did end up with Prof. Griffin having a quiet word with him.

John explained: “When I met Prof. Griffin for the first time, we hit it off straight away.

“He was a sport fanatic who used to play for Scotland and Gosforth when they were one of the best teams in the country, and just an all-round sports fan. The next day after the three had visited, he said he had a bone to pick with me because he couldn’t believe the outstanding Gebrselassie had been on his ward and nobody had told him.”

John was nursed back to full health and has enjoyed a happy and normal life ever since.

And he felt the best way of saying thank you to Prof. Griffin, who retired in December, was to carry out a physical challenge to raise funds for the unit.

The group of friends chose to walk the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route of St James, as it was a challenge John had already completed so knew how testing it would be.

He said: “The route is split into three parts, with the first third is a real physical challenge as you cross the Pyrenees, so it’s 20km followed by 5km down.

“It’s very hard on the legs and you have aching muscles and blisters for the first five days or so.

“The middle part of the walk is more of a mental challenge because it’s mainly trekking in a huge plateau, known as the meseta.

“It’s just long trails on flat land, and it’s pretty boring and uninteresting. But it is a section you have to do. It’s a hard shift and you do long days of 25 to 30km distances, and there’s not a lot of beautiful scenery to spur you on.

“The final section from the city of Leon to Galicia is a mixture of both physical and mental, and the mountains of Galicia are beautiful.

“You get to meet lots of people from across the world on the route, and learning about their different reasons, whether for a good cause or because of personal strife, is just so interesting.”

While the physical exercise is a big bonus, all members lost weight during the walk, the social aspect of the challenge was appreciated by the close-knit group of friends.

John said: “It was great. It was constant Mickey taking, interacting with other people and then having a meal and drink in the evening. It was just a fun experience.

“There was one moment which stood out when Brendan visited a crumbling, rural church in a small town and the priest invited him to read the lesson that night. He invited a German, Spanish and French person to read the same passage for people from across the world. The service was conducted in Latin in Gregorian chant format and, although I’m not a churchgoer, this was really something to behold.”

John and the gang set off to raise as much money for the RVI’s Oesophago-Gastric Cancer Unit.

With donations coming from the likes of Olympic heroes Sir Mo Farah and Sally Gunnell, the total currently sat at £24,000. Donations can be left at