Candid With Cancer #8 – My Second Cancer Diagnosis
Thomas Ashley details his battle against AML as part of a new weekly blog
I came out of hospital in July 2015. The next year and a half were a bit of a blur, especially year 11. I was so focused on staying in my year group and getting my GCSEs done, I just powered through. I missed a lot of my first term in year 11, through illness. But still wanted to get it done. I felt like I didn’t have a choice. And that if I got through it, I would start sixth form with my peers and everything would be ‘normal’ again. Everything that had happened could just be forgotten about. I would be me again. I’d be Tom. I’d be the Tom everyone knew. But I was wrong, so wrong.
This was just the beginning of what was to come. Apart from a few memories during this period such as travelling to Ecuador to volunteer in the summer of 2016 and my Make-A-Wish to the new Star Wars set, I have no recall of anything significant or important. I just can’t remember anything. I was so focused on just getting through life, I forgot to live it. But I didn’t know this at the time. At the start of sixth form was when I realised my mental health was rock bottom and it started to come to light. And though it had been troubling me for a while, I never showed it or acknowledged it. I didn’t want to believe it because I was ‘normal’. I didn’t understand it because I was the same as everyone else, doing what everyone else does. But I wasn’t.
I went into sixth form in 2016, ready and raring to go, as I think a lot of people would be. But for me it was a fresh start. I can put what I have been through behind me and get on with life. Process to the next stage you could say. However, from day one I struggled. I first noticed it when I couldn’t decide on the topics I wanted to study. But I thought this was normal. I kept switching, having no idea what to do. Then I couldn’t concentrate in lessons. Just constantly fidgeting and losing concentration and messing around. Not really wanting to be there. Or not knowing why I was there. What was I doing? What was my purpose? This got picked up on after a month or so later, because it was getting worse. And, when I look back on it now, this was my first cry for help. This was the only way I knew how to show people, I need help. Please help me. Something wasn’t right but I didn’t know and no one else knew.
Again, I don’t remember this point in my life too clearly, still very much a blur. Just trying to get through each day, rather than live it. But I finally got called to my head of sixth form office, where I just broke down. I just gave in. I caved. And this was a scary time, even though it was different to my diagnoses, I didn’t know what was going on or what I was feeling and why I was feeling it. I continued to get worse and worse. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t find out until 5 year later. But I didn’t know that at the time. But one thing that did stick with me was when my teacher told me, I had been dealt a set of cards and this is my set of cards which I play my life with at the moment. And in life, some people get a good set of cards and others get an awful set of cards, just like poker. But it was about what you do with those cards, instead of constantly comparing and feeling sorry for yourself. Make those cards work for yourself. Do what you have to do to make those cards work. But I didn’t know. I wish I did. It would have saved me a lot of pain if I had known.
The more I sit on it and remember and have time to reflect, I was in a dark place. Somewhere I had never been before or thought I could ever go. I was having dark thoughts. And the demons weren’t just taking over, but had taken over. I thought I had been through the worst already; cancer. At least I knew what cancer was and I could make sense of it. This had no face, no name. Nothing I could categorise. Because it was all in my head.
One question which stuck out to me at this point in my life, which I became fixated on, is where would I be and how would I feel if I just hadn’t gone through this. If I could just go back in time and start again. If I could go back to February 2015 and somehow change it. That’s all I wanted. I didn’t want this anymore. I was hurting and I was in pain. Worst of all, I didn’t know why. I couldn’t express myself; I couldn’t explain it and I couldn’t understand it. I just wanted to go back and start again. Just wanted to be normal because I didn’t know what was going on. I just want to be normal. That’s all I would say to myself. I wanted to be normal and treated normally.
After a while, I started seeing a counsellor provided by my school. And it was hard. I didn’t want to believe how I was feeling, that I needed help. I had only been a burden for the last couple years and it continued. But this helped. This really helped. The next couple months, I can’t really remember why but I did start to pick up. I could see something ahead of me. I started to realise that, what I had been through, wasn’t normal so why would I be ‘normal’.
Around February 2017, I started to think about my future. What university am I going to go to? Where will I go? What am I going to do after university? I started the process of figuring things out, which is hard enough without added circumstances. There was also a sports trip to South Africa coming up and having spent a year and a half getting fit again, because of the toll of the cancer and chemo on my body, I couldn’t wait for it. I was excited. I was slowly but surely enjoying things in my life again. I was doing things which gave me joy and the hard work was paying off. The elections for new prefects were also coming up, and I had always wanted to be one. Things seemed to be looking up and I could see a path forward had been cleared, which was a positive. But everything was ripped away from me, right from under my nose, in a blink of an eye. From hero to zero in a heartbeat. And I remember. I just wanted to give up and die. My worst nightmare had come true, what I had dreaded the most. I had relapsed.