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Body image and cancer are difficult things to talk about at the best of times. In a way, talking about them can make you feel vulnerable and you could even say there is a stigma, especially with body image. Although that is not necessarily what I believe.
So you might be reading this wondering why I agreed to go on national radio with BBC Radio 5 live earlier this summer to talk about my experiences, along with two other young women and a member of staff from The Christie.
I think I did it because since being treated for cancer at The Christie I feel like a different person now, in a good way. I feel stronger, more willing to do adventurous things and I’m more confident in my own body.
There are so many people who helped me on this journey both within The Christie and amongst my friends and family to feel confident in my body, its strength to fight this disease and my changing appearance. From the many doctors and nurses to the body image group run by Anna at The Christie as well as those who helped me with confidence and strategies to cope with the relentless cannulas.
In fact, I was astonished when a magician magically showed up just after an awful experience with a cannula to cheer me up! And one close friend even cut her hair short in solidarity with me as I lost mine. Others supported me through messages of encouragement on Facebook, long phone calls and even hundreds of people praying for me from different church circles that my parents knew. It all gave me the strength to fight my battle.
It was a weird experience to be back in hospital in the Palatine ward, as it felt like my time there had been a lifetime ago.
When I was speaking on the radio, at first, I was a bit nervous. But then it felt great to be able to share my story with potentially millions of people and possibly help others with issues they have about their body image. And it was great to listen to the two other young women taking part, Chelsea and Seren. We were all at different stages of our treatment, and able to give encouragement to each other, and also share some advice we’d learnt along the way!
If you’d like to know more about my story please read on.
I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia in October 2015. I was 16, had finished high school, and was ready to have a fresh start at a new college.
Before my diagnosis, I was a pretty average teenager with the kind of body image issues that I think a lot of teenagers have.
I was self-conscious about my size and didn’t feel confident to walk around in tight clothing, usually sticking to baggy clothes. I would see girls who were ‘thin’ and wished I could be like them. However, these feelings did improve after I started feeling more comfortable in college.
I’d only managed about a month of college when I started getting weird symptoms, such as extreme fatigue and being breathless when doing hardly anything. I began thinking this wasn’t normal for a teenage girl. I’d also started getting tinnitus (ringing in the ears), half-hour-long nosebleeds and my appetite was depleting.
At one point I wondered if I had cancer. Then told myself not to be stupid because people my age don’t get cancer! When I look back on it now, I think I was only trying to convince myself of that.
I hardly knew anyone, young or old, who’d had cancer. I’d heard of Talia Castellano, a brave young blogger who had fought cancer for six years, but I’d never made the connection that it could happen to me.
Finally, on 23rd October, my mum took me to A&E. We were supposed to visit my family that day, but I was too tired to get up and it took all the energy I had. My skin was also paler than usual. A few days before, my grandma had noticed how tired I looked and suggested it could be anaemia as it runs in the family. We went to the hospital expecting to get iron tablets but left with a cancer diagnosis.
Within 24 hours of my diagnosis, after getting transferred to Oldham hospital for the night, I was transferred to The Christie’s Teenage and Young Adult Unit. It may sound strange, but I was actually glad to be there. It wasn’t like the average hospital. The unit always had stuff going on, from crafts one day to a movie and pizza night the next. For me, it was a break from all the painful experiences with cannulas and the chemo brain.
One thing that stood out to me in the more than seven weeks I spent in hospital was the body image group facilitated by one of the members of staff, Anna. She had invited a small group of young women to come and share our experiences. We sat and talked a lot about cancer diagnosis, how it’s affected everyone and how our body image had been affected. As I looked around the room, I saw hope. There were women who had either completely finished chemotherapy or were outpatients, and that helped give me the strength and perseverance to know that if they can do it, so can I.
In hospital, I didn’t really pay much attention to my body’s state; I was too busy dealing with the intense chemotherapy to notice that I had started to lose a lot of weight due to the effects of treatment and being unable to eat enough. By the end of my time in hospital, I was around 52kg (about eight stone) and could barely walk because of how weak I was.
I found this quite upsetting and unsettling at the time. About three months before, I had wanted to lose weight. But now that I had, I realised it wasn’t all that it seemed and the truth was I looked extremely frail and not how I imagined looking. Ever since then, I’ve promised myself that I would never get to that state again. There’s nothing wrong with having fat and our bodies fight to keep us alive every day so our bodies are ideal just the way they are and not how the media tells us they should be.
In reality, some of the hardest things to do with body image during my treatment haven’t been visible to those around me, and that was the extreme fatigue and chemo brain that I’ve felt throughout treatment. What people see and what you experience are two completely different things. Only you as a person knows how you are feeling and it can be hard for people to empathise with patients who are having treatment.
A patient’s image of what they would like their body to be able to do is often different from the reality. Understanding this can be a great support to someone on this cancer journey.
I want to thank BBC Radio 5 live and The Christie for giving me the opportunity to share this story and to discuss a really important issue facing young women and men who get cancer. I want to thank the many people that have helped and supported me. Lastly, I want to thank anyone who has read this blog!
Zoe Ashworth (second left) at the launch of the Cancer Champions project
Around five years ago I made a big decision, one which would ultimately set me on a completely different path. I decided I was no longer happy working in the financial industry that I had worked in for several years, and that I would find something that gave me meaning, that I enjoyed doing, something that I ‘got something out of’. I didn’t know where to begin. I knew that I wanted to work with and help people; I just wasn’t sure where, what I wanted to do or how to start. I started to think about my options. Shortly after, I applied to become a volunteer at my local hospital, Stepping Hill in Stockport. I had my interview and luckily landed a volunteer role which I was very pleased with. I enjoyed volunteering so much that I applied to a nearby college for an access to higher education course and also to re-do some of my GCSE’s. I knew this wouldn’t be easy especially as I had a one-year-old daughter. In becoming a volunteer, it made me realise that helping people was where I wanted to be. After a difficult childhood, I had finally found something that made me feel elated! Despite my initial doubts, after much perseverance, I achieved excellent grades in my access course and managed to re-do the three GCSEs I needed to get into university, all whilst volunteering for around three hours each week. You’re probably wondering how this links to The Christie and how I become a Cancer Champion. Well, I knew that my late nanna attended The Christie when I was as a child, but it was only when I reached my mid-twenties that I found out she had received treatment at The Christie for breast cancer, not just once, but twice. My nanna always spoke so highly of The Christie even when I was young. I just didn’t know how special The Christie was until I became an adult and realised how privileged we are to have such an amazing, world class hospital within Greater Manchester. This being confirmed more recently after my grandma was diagnosed with lymphoma and started receiving treatment at The Christie last year. You see, going back many years ago, I had always wanted to know more about cancer, why people get it, how can we prevent it and so on. Sadly, cancer will more than likely affect us all, in one way or another, if it hasn’t already. As I achieved all the grades I needed to get into my chosen university, I became a student nurse. As a student nurse, you get various placements within different trusts. It was on one of my study days during my first year as a student nurse that I attended a multi-disciplinary team (MDT) meeting with Stockport’s cancer board. An MDT meeting is where various professionals come together to make decisions about particular issues. It was during this MDT meeting that I met the regional manager (North West) for Beating Bowel Cancer as well as staff from Public Health Stockport MBC, Macmillan and Cancer Research UK. They were discussing a new bowel screening project (bowel cancer is currently the 2nd biggest cancer killer). Despite being a nervous first-year student nurse (with no knowledge of bowel cancer or bowel screening) I mentioned my previous volunteer experience and suggested it would be a great idea to consider volunteers from various areas, including existing hospital volunteers and even students from universities/colleges to help raise awareness. There are many people who are willing to give their time for fantastic causes such as this, they just need to be made aware. The team welcomed my suggestion and before I knew it, despite having a young child and managing a university degree I was receiving the training I needed to become a Beating Bowel Cancer screening volunteer. The training was very informal and I didn’t need to have any previous knowledge of bowel cancer/bowel screening. I was provided with all the information I could possibly need. They were all so kind and friendly, and we all shared the same interest in helping people. I was keen to get on board with the project as I believed that this volunteer role had the potential to make such a massive difference to peoples lives, catching cancer early is vital if we are to improve outcomes for people and their families. In my role as a Beating Bowel Cancer volunteer/cancer champion, I visit a local GP practice where I am given a list of all non-responders (people who don’t send back their bowel screening kits after they have received them in the post). Currently, everybody aged 60-74 should receive a bowel screening kit every 2 years. I work through the list contacting patients by telephone in relation to bowel screening. I record the outcome of each conversation, taking note of who has agreed to have a new kit sent out. I work with the GP practices’ practice cancer champion, and at the end of my conversations I provide them with a list highlighting which patients have agreed to have a new screening kit sent out, the practice cancer champion will then order the new kits. Crucially, the earlier bowel cancer is detected the better the survival rate. Earlier diagnosis also increases the odds of treatment success, resulting in fewer complications and improved quality of life for patients. Volunteering with Beating Bowel Cancer has provided me with the skills and knowledge that I need to inform people about the importance of screening. I am passionate about health and knowing that I am making a difference, however small, makes me feel proud. Even if I help just one person, that means that I have done my job! Being a Cancer Champion is very rewarding. I believe more people should be aware of local volunteering opportunities available to them. I think it’s important that people understand there is some flexibility, most people are very time poor so it is important that people are aware of the different ways in which they can help. Once people understand how meaningful volunteering can be, I am sure that many more people will be keen to get involved. My young daughter and I hosted a bake sale and raffle on World Cancer Day (February 4th) to raise awareness and get people thinking about bowel screening. Anything I can do to make people think about screening is good enough for me, plus it was great being able to get my daughter involved too, she really enjoyed it and we made around £500 over the weekend, so it was a win-win situation. I have learnt a lot about myself these last few years, and whilst it hasn’t been easy, I am so pleased that I have made the decisions that I have. Everything I have done, both big and small, has led me on to something else. I am enjoying the journey and through volunteering I have gained skills that I couldn’t have gained any other way. I volunteer as a Cancer Champion as often as I can, and have now gained a particular interest in public health. I started by volunteering on a hospital ward, and in doing that have changed my life. I am grateful for every experience in my life, both good and bad, because they have led me to where I am today, and I am privileged to be in a position where I can make a difference to people’s lives. It makes me feel good and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. It is vital that where possible we prevent cancer, but what is equally as important is screening and awareness initiatives. I feel it is my role to inform and empower people about screening. In my role as a friend, mother, relative, student nurse or volunteer, I will always try and do my bit so that the people around me are empowered to make the right decisions for them, so that they can all have long, happy and healthy lives. The more Cancer Champions that we have on board the more likely we are to beat cancer sooner. If I can be a Cancer Champion, anyone can….. For more details about how to become a cancer champion go to www.vsnw.org.uk/become-a-cancer-champion/