‘My three cancer fights in 30 years’

Martin Ashby with his Wife Diane
Martin Ashby with his Wife Diane
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People say lightning doesn’t strike twice, but Fylde teacher Martin Ashby knows differently. He talks about beating cancer three times over the last 30 years.

Like most dutiful husbands, Martin Ashby was at the hospital when his wife Diane was giving birth to their second child.

Martin Ashby with Wife Diane and sons, Matthew and Gareth

Martin Ashby with Wife Diane and sons, Matthew and Gareth

However, Martin wasn’t at Diane’s bedside mopping her fevered brow. He was at the other side of hospital undergoing chemotherapy oblivious that his second son was making his arrival into the world.

Martin, now 59, recalls: “It was a snowy night on January 8 1986 and I was having my third lot of chemotherapy at hospital.

“Unknown to me, my wife was giving birth to our son Gareth in another part of the hospital.

“I was upset at the time that I’d missed out on seeing our son born, but Di didn’t want me to know and it was the right decision.

It was a snowy night on January 8 1986 and I was having my third lot of chemotherapy at hospital. Unknown to me, my wife was giving birth to our son Gareth in another part of the hospital

“At the time, I was finding things difficult and wasn’t in the right state of mind to cope.”

Martin was sports mad and ultra fit working as a PE teacher at the old assessment centre Fylde School in Poulton, next to Baines, when his life suddenly changed as he was heading towards his 30th birthday.

Martin, who had played around 250 games of rugby for the first team at Vale of Lune rugby union club at the time, noticed he was having problems breathing and felt something was not right.

Martin remembers: “I went to see my doctor on numerous occasions, but as I had a history of hayfever, they thought it was either that or asthma.

Martin on Morecambe promenade

Martin on Morecambe promenade

“But I’d never had problems with breathing like that before and deep down, I just knew something else was wrong. I was still doing my teaching job and playing rugby for the Vale, but I was finding it hard work.”

Later on that same year in 1985, Martin found his breathing was worse and he started suffering from shortness of breath when lying on his back at night.

Martin says: “I kept going back to see the doctor to try and get to the bottom of it.

“In the September of that year, I saw a different doctor because my own wasn’t there.

“After hearing my symptoms, this doctor sent me for a chest X-ray.”

Martin’s older son Matthew was three at the time his wife Diane was about five months pregnant with their second son Gareth.

Martin actually ended up having three X-rays as the entire X-ray looked cloudy and doctors couldn’t see his chest so thought something had gone wrong with the X-rays.

It was only then they discovered the reason they couldn’t see his chest was because there was one big tumour covering it all.

Martin explains: “The tumour was the size of a football and doctors suddenly knew why I’d been suffering from breathing problems.

“When I was lying on my back at night, the tumour was pressing on my windpipe and causing shortness of breath.

“Finding out about the tumour was horrific, but in a way, it was a relief to finally know the reason for me feeling so bad all those months.”

Martin was sent for a biopsy at Blackpool Victoria Hospital and results revealed he had seminoma. He had a rare form of testicular cancer which developed in the chest rather than the testicles.

Martin says: “Finding out I had cancer was a shock. Doctors had suspected tuberculosis at first.

“My advice to people would be to keep persevering if they think there’s something wrong.

“Get a second opinion and see another doctor as I did.

“They may have a different perspective or knowledge of your problem.”

Martin went to Manchester’s Christie Hospital for six months of chemotherapy followed by 20 sessions of radiotherapy.

Although the treatment was gruelling, Martin’s peak level of fitness meant he was able to cope with the physical toll on his body.

However, the same could not be said for the mental struggles he experienced.

Martin admits: “The physical side of coping with cancer was easier than the mental part for me.

“I became very depressed and went into a really bad place.

“This was something completely different for me as I’d never been depressed before. I was always the life and soul of the party.

“I remember thinking things like: ‘How will I support my family?’ and ‘Will I play rugby again?’ and ‘Will I be able to go back to teaching?’

“There was also the fear the cancer would come back.”

At the time of his diagnosis, Martin was put in touch with the charity CancerCare in Lancaster which helps people and families affected by cancer and other life limiting conditions.

Martin says he found their support invaluable and says they helped him and his wife through the difficult ordeal of coping with cancer and sorting out practical issues.

Martin recalls: “Being such an active person before, having cancer hit me hard and responsibilities weighed down heavy on me.

“It was a terrible time and at one point, I had to go into hospital as my depression was so bad.

“CancerCare were amazing and really stepped up and were a huge help during this period.

“I never really recovered from the depression and still take anti-depressants now.”

Despite the odds against him because of the size of the tumour, Martin’s cancer treatment worked and after 18 months off work, he returned to his teaching job.

He even went back to playing rugby for Vale of Lune for about a year.

To get himself back to full fitness, Martin took up cycling and in 1988, he and his brothers Michael and Stuart cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats while their dad Clifford, who has since passed away, drove the support vehicle.

Their venture raised £10,000 for CancerCare.

Martin went to teach at Our Lady’s Catholic School in Lancaster for about 18 months before getting a job as a PE teacher at Cardinal Allen High School in Fleetwood where he stayed until he finished in 2007 and was head of department there for the last 10 years.

Martin says: “Cardinal Allen was such a brilliant school and I had so much support from the head when I was affected by the depression.”

However, in 1996, 10 years after his cancer battle, Martin was dealt a second blow.

He says: “I was walking with my wife Diane and I remember saying: ‘I can’t believe it’s been 10 years since the cancer.’

“Virtually days later, I was in the shower when I felt a lump in my testicle.

“I was sent for an ultrasound and it turned out to be testicular cancer.

“To have the cancer come back after all that time was a huge shock and I was gobsmacked.”

Early detection meant the cancer was more straightforward to treat. Martin underwent surgery to remove the testicle followed by 20 radiotherapy sessions.

Martin says: “This time, the diagnosis didn’t affect me as badly as my kids were older, life was more established and I was more mature and able to cope better with it. It wasn’t OK, but it was bearable.”

This time round, Martin was back to work in no time and he took part in a number of other fundraising ventures in aid of CancerCare.

Ten years after his first mammoth cycle ride, Martin did another Lands End to John O’Groats cycle ride, this time raising £30,000 for the charity.

Life then went on for Martin although he still struggled with bouts of depression. After finding the depression harder to cope with, Martin decided to retire from his job at Cardinal Allen in 2007 on ill health grounds.

Since then, he has done various odd jobs and kept himself busy. Then a few years ago, Martin received his third cancer diagnosis after noticing an area of his chest becoming infected, getting rashes and scabbing.

He explains: “I went to Clifton Hospital in Lytham and they found it was skin cancer.

“They think it was caused by the radiation treatment I had all those years ago.

“Thirty years ago, radiation was not as sophisticated. Nowadays, it is a lot more targeted.

“I had to have some small operations to semi-burn the skin on my chest to seal the area. It is ongoing and I have had a few treatments.”

Despite his cancer ordeals, Martin feels he is fortunate to have lived to tell the tale.

His happiness has been further fuelled by the recent birth of his first grandson Grayson who is now nine-weeks-old.

Martin, who has been married to Diane for 37 years, says: “Becoming a grandad is amazing and I am so glad to experience it.

“If I hadn’t made it, it is just one of the many things I’d have missed out on.

“Becoming a grandparent is different to anything else in life - even to becoming a parent. When you have your own children, you are so busy and worrying about the stresses in life. But when you become a grandparent, you have time to appreciate them and spend quality time with them.”

Martin will turn 60 on July 23 and wanted to do something to mark the occasion - and raise more money for CancerCare.

So today, he is setting off from Lands End to recreate the 900 mile cycle ride to John O’Groats once again.

His brothers Michael and Stuart will drive the support vehicle and his two brothers-in-law Mike Leaf and Peter Straw will do the second half of the cycle ride with him cycling from Morecambe to John O’Groats.

Martin, who lives in Morecambe, says: “I’d like to say a big thank you to all my family and extended family for being so amazing over the last 30 years. If it wasn’t for friends and family, it would have been a real struggle and I would have found it even more difficult to cope. My aim is to raise as much money as possible for CancerCare.

“Throughout my long battle with cancer, CancerCare has played a huge part in supporting myself and my family throughout the illness and recovery. I was so thankful for the support CancerCare were able to provide to my two young sons and wife who were also struggling with my diagnosis and treatment - especially while I was receiving treatment in hospital and wasn’t around to provide the comfort and support for them all.”

n To sponsor Martin, visit: www.justgiving.com/cyclemartin