Monday 28 February, 2022

From Elite Athlete to Cancer and Back

Andrew McAslan is based in the UK and was diagnosed with follicular lymphoma in August 2021. He is an elite athlete.

My Story

Last August, at the age of 25, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 Follicular Lymphoma, an incurable blood cancer. Due to how widespread the disease was I immediately started 6 months of immuno-chemotherapy with the aim of getting a complete response to treatment. 

I never imagined I would be in this situation in my mid-twenties. I was an 800m track athlete with the aim of becoming as strong and fit as possible, when suddenly my life was turned upside down and I found myself fighting this awful disease. The news came as a massive shock, but I managed to remain positive and was ready to tackle whatever was thrown at me through the process! 

I experienced strange symptoms for months, along with unexplainable dips in training and performance. I was told by multiple doctors that I probably just had IBS and that I was too young for it to be cancer. This was a difficult time for me, none of it made sense and nobody seemed to have the answers. The situation wasn’t just affecting me physically but also mentally. I was struggling to do the sport that I loved and questioning absolutely everything was making me miserable. I was eventually forced to take a break from the sport as things were getting worse and worse. After pushing for scans and further tests, it became apparent what was really going on. Despite having symptoms for around 6 months, the consultant said that I had probably had cancer for around 3-4 years and that it has just been slowly growing.

Going through treatment was tough enough, but dealing with the impact cancer had on my life and sporting ambitions was a huge mental challenge too. It was difficult to come to terms with my new reality and all the uncertainty that came with it. I had lots of questions about what this meant for my future; my partner, Leah, made it her task to find some answers. She found the Living with Follicular Lymphoma Facebook group, a great source of information and support. The FL community has been an amazing help to us since my diagnosis; for anyone else experiencing cancer I would definitely say being part of a community of people going through something similar is a massive help.

Cancer had a huge impact on my relationship with exercise, even before I knew I had it. The impact that it was having on my body and my ability to do my sport was extremely demoralising, to the extent where I stopped enjoying one of the things I loved the most. 

As a result, prior to diagnosis and for the first couple of months of my treatment I wasn’t really exercising much. Considering I was training to be an elite athlete, I could see the impact it was having on my mental health at the time. I knew I had to do something about this and after sharing the news of my situation more publicly, I was motivated to not let cancer dictate my life, subdue my ambitions or take away the sport I love. From that point on, I was determined to get back into exercise and challenge myself to see how much I could manage in between the treatments I was having every 4 weeks. 

The next big aim was to hopefully get into remission, finish treatment, and work my way back to elite sport.

The decision to get back into exercise mid-way through my cancer treatment had an unbelievably positive impact on my ability to mentally and physically deal with what I was going through. Going from not much exercise during the first two months of treatment, to daily exercise for the remaining four months, made it really clear to me what an amazing difference exercise made. Not only did it help me cope mentally, but it seemed to help me recover quicker too. I am a big believer in the power of exercise helping us get through challenging times.

Thankfully my immuno-chemotherapy treatment was successful and I am currently in remission. The tricky nature of canceris that it is incurable and will come back – there’s just no way of knowing when. Getting the amazing news of being in remission and finishing treatment meant two of my big goals were ticked off, and paved the way for me to start working towards getting back into elite sport. I am currently six weeks on from finishing treatment and, after recovering from the initial side effects, have started gradually working my way back into training, taking the first few steps on what will be a long, challenging but exciting road. 

Advice

The mental side of cancer is not to be underestimated, it’s such a rollercoaster. I found it really useful to write things down during bad moments to help take the pressure off, clear my head and get my feelings on paper. The most important thing is not to put too much pressure on yourself. Regardless of the specifics, any cancer experience will be tough mentally – we are only human and there’s going to be ups and downs.

When it comes to getting back into exercise during or after treatment, here are a few things that helped me:

  • Staying well hydrated. Lots of water is important, especially during treatment.
  • Daily exercise. Get your body moving, however you can.
  • Reduce stress and get enough sleep.
  • Fresh air. Getting outside and getting some vitamin D can have a huge impact both mentally and physically.
  • Eating well and keeping a balanced diet. 

Our Mission

Going forward I have huge ambitions! I’ve created an Instagram and YouTube channel to help me continue to document my story, with the hope of helping and inspiring others. I’ll be sharing my efforts as I come back to elite sport and my partner, Leah, will share what it has been like for a partner and loved one to go through cancer. We hope to be a helpful resource for people supporting someone who has been diagnosed. We want to show that mindset can be half the battle, encouraging people to be ambitious with a ‘can do’ attitude despite the hand they’ve been dealt. 

When I was diagnosed, I struggled to find any examples of real experiences to relate to, that were similar to what I was going through in my 20s. Leah found the same thing, desperate to help, but unable to find people in similar situations to get advice from. We want to create a resource, for young people and their partners/loved ones who find themselves dealing with cancer, that provides support, advice, and inspiration. 

Lastly, we want to continue raising awareness for follicular lymphoma. It can be very hard to diagnose and can develop in anyone at any age.  I hope to empower people to push for further tests and checks when things don’t feel right and to refuse to take no for an answer when you aren’t satisfied with the answers you are being given.

Andrew McAslan is based in the UK and was diagnosed with follicular lymphoma in August 2021. He is an elite athlete.

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