Like most 26-year-old women living in London, Ashton Howard was a fun loving girl, working hard and playing harder when she started to feel what she thought was the effect of her fast-paced lifestyle. Her legs were aching in a way they never had before, but she put it down to a love of sky-scraper heels. When the pain didn’t ease during her two weeks back home on the Isle of Wight with her family over Christmas, Ashton’s mum was inevitably worried and encouraged her to go to the doctors. To put her mothers’ mind at ease, she visited her GP on her return to London, thinking she may be anaemic.
The doctor referred her to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in south London, near where she lived, for blood tests. A few days later, she received a life-altering call asking her to attend the Macmillan cancer unit at the hospital where she was given the devastating news - she had ALL.
In her Positively Thirteen blog (www.positivelythirteen.com), which she has set up to help others see the light at the end of the terrifying tunnel, she writes, "My life as I knew it immediately came crashing to a halt. I was admitted to hospital the following day where I was put into isolation for over six weeks and began an intensive 10-month chemotherapy regime. I was forced to follow a strict neutropenic diet due to my weakened immune system. This was to stop me contracting infections, which basically meant anything fresh and healthy was a no go. Having always been a health conscious person, I felt let down by my body and frustrated that this had happened to me”.
Scared and in shock, Ashton made the decision to be treated in Southampton hospital as it was closer to her family home. Talking of her fear, she says “I couldn’t get my head around it and I don’t think it really sunk in until much further down the line. I do remember the consultant saying to me that it was curable and that really stuck with me. I didn’t read any of the information I was given as I didn’t want to know about survival rates. I just needed to know is that it was curable”.
One of the many side effects Ashton had to deal with was hair loss, which can be particularly difficult for patients to discuss or even face. During her first bout of chemo, Ashton’s hair started to fall out. She writes ‘Losing my hair was far less traumatic than I had expected. As soon as it started coming out I cut it into a bob, I let my best friend take the first snip after promising her she could cut my hair over 20 years ago. After about a week of my new bob I decided it was time to let go, I wanted to take back control and shave my head rather than trying to cling on to my last few locks. My mum and a couple of friends were with me on the day when my hair dresser came to my ward armed with her razors. I was expecting to be an emotional wreck but instead I felt liberated. I loved my bald head, it felt amazing and I couldn’t stop stroking it, much to the annoyance of everyone around me’.
Following her aggressive treatment, Ashton’s previously long curly locks grew back straight, much to her delight. She, and others, loved her new crop so much she decided to keep it. She writes ‘A year down the line and my hair is finally starting to grow back! I would have never in a million years had the guts to cut my hair short, I’d had the same hairstyle for years so I’m really excited about trying out some new looks. I feel like this will give me the opportunity to reinvent myself and a good excuse to go on a shopping spree for some new clothes to match my new look’.
Ashton admits to underestimating how long her treatment would take and describes how her life being put on hold temporarily was particuarly tough to accept. She explains “I didn’t realise the length of the treatment. I was very naive. I told the doctors that they needed to make me better in time so I could go on the holiday I had booked a couple of months later . However, this obviously never happened. Missing out on things and seeing my friends moving on with their lives while mine had come to a complete stand still was hard to deal with.”
"Seeing my friends moving on with their lives while mine had come to a complete stand still was hard to deal with."
Now in the two-year maintenance phase of her treatment, which includes oral chemo and lumbar punctures every three months, Ashton reflects on her journey in her characteristically positive way. Ashton recalls how “taking one day at a time” was the best advice she took and rather than asking why me?, she has subsequently re-evaluated her life for the better, Having made the decision to make a permanent move back home to the Isle of Wight she now spends her days practising yoga and has learnt to paddle board, spending lots of time by the sea and visiting London to see her friends. She says, “It’s so important to remain positive. Meditation and reiki are great ways to keep a positive mind set”. She has also decided to enrol in an online nutritional therapy course to enhance her knowledge of nutrition. She says, "The isolation and awful hospital food was the hardest part for me. I can’t fault the NHS as they have been amazing, but they have no idea about nutrition and how important it is in aiding recovery. I have just started a module on how food can affect our genes and DNA which is fascinating. I’m not claiming to be an expert, but I would like to help others going through similar situations by sharing my new found knowledge and recipe ideas!"
While Ashton’s diagnosis was devastating and life-altering, she is embracing the future in a new, positive way. She writes "I was 26 when I was diagnosed so I was too old to be treated on the teenage unit and found I had very little support. I longed to speak to other young people that had been through this and had come out the other side as, at the time, I couldn’t possibly imagine living a normal life again. I’ve always been told I’m a very positive person and so I wanted to set up my blog to show people going through this that there is light at the end of the tunnel." She continues, "I have down days when I feel really annoyed, scared, and worried about my future and my fear of relapse but I guess nobody knows what’s around the corner. Rather than looking at the negatives I try and remain focused on moving forward. It’s my belief that my diagnosis was a wake-up call to change and in some strange way I feel lucky to have been given this opportunity to transform my life".
While the diagnosis Ashton received was devastating and life-altering, Ashton is embracing the future in a new, positive way. A true inspiration to all those affected by blood cancer.
You can read Ashton’s Positively Thirteen blog here www.positivelythirteen.com