South Warwickshire man’s support for star awards after fighting cancer twice as a teenager
WHEN Thomas Ashley was a teenager, he was twice diagnosed with cancer.
The now 24-year-old from Wellesbourne underwent months of gruelling chemotherapy treatment for a blood cancer while studying for his GCSEs in 2015.
After meeting Star Wars actor Mark Hamill, Tom was inspired to complete his A-levels and try out for drama school. But when the cancer returned just two years later, Thomas found himself in a spiral of depression and suicidal thoughts.
Now fully on the road to recovery, Tom has opened up about his mental health struggles because he wants to inspire others to keep going when all hope is lost.
And it’s one of the reasons why he’s thrown his support behind the Cancer Research UK Stars Awards, which recognises the courage of children and young people who have faced cancer.
Every child nominated receives the accolade, which is backed by a host of famous faces, including celebrity chef Jean-Christophe Novelli, TV personality Dr Ranj and children’s TV favourite Mister Maker.
There is no judging panel because the charity believes every child diagnosed with cancer deserves special recognition. The awards are open to all children under 18 who live in the UK and have been treated for the disease within the past five years.
As well as a star-shaped trophy, children also receive a £50 TK Maxx gift card, T-shirt and a certificate signed by the celebrities.
Brothers and sisters receive certificates too.
Tom, a former pupil at Princethorpe College in Rugby, said: “The Star Awards are special. To know there are people out there who do care – you start to understand that it’s a lot more than just an award. There are people backing you who will be in your corner no matter what.”
Tom knows only too well how important that recognition is after struggling with cancer treatment at an age where he admits he didn’t even know who he was.
His ordeal began in January 2015 when he began to feel ill with suspected tonsilitis.
“I had always suffered with tonsilitis, so we put it down to that,” said Tom who was 15 at the time. “I visited my GP who prescribed antibiotics and a week later I felt a little better. However, trying to play hockey and football was exhausting.”
After a week of tests, Tom received a phone call to say he needed to go to Coventry’s Walsgrave Hospital straightaway. He underwent further tests before being told the devastating news he had cancer.
Tom said: “I remember saying: ‘I don’t want to have cancer, I don’t want to die,’ and I remember my mum breaking down in tears.”
Within just a few days, Tom was moved to Birmingham Children’s Hospital and had bone marrow taken from his back before starting months of intensive chemotherapy.
“It was unimaginable mental and physical pain and within the first month I lost 15kg,” he said. “I was sick and lost my hair, but you have to just take one day at a time to get through it.”
Tom’s proud parents Lucy and James encouraged him to ring the end of treatment bell after a follow up hospital appointment confirmed he was in remission. But Tom’s nightmare was far from over.
“I remember I just wanted to be ‘normal’ but I didn’t know what normal was any longer,” said Tom. I was in remission but had a breakdown as I had thoughts of survivor guilt and constantly questioned why I was still alive when others didn’t survive.”
Tom says he saw a counsellor at school and was starting to get his life back on track, even going back to playing the sports he loved.
But a routine bone marrow check-up in March 2017, saw his worst fears realised. Tom’s cancer was back.
“I just broke down,” he said. “I remember crying and crying and saying I’d rather die than go through the treatment again – but I knew I had to do it.”
Tom was admitted to Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital where he underwent the strongest chemotherapy treatment as well as a stem cell transplant, using cells donated by his elder sister Eve.
“It was worse the second time,” he recalls. “I knew what to expect so it was awful thinking I had to do it all again. But you just get through it.”
During treatment Tom received a get-well video message from Star Wars legend Mark Hamill who he’d met as part of a charity ‘Make a Wish’ two years earlier. Inspired by the acting icon, Tom secured a place at a drama school in London after his A-levels. But it wasn’t long before his mental health began to spiral.
“After just a couple of weeks I realised I had made a mistake and things started to crumble again – my mental health was a real struggle,” recalled Tom, who was also mourning the loss of a friend and fellow cancer patient he’d met in hospital.
He especially remembers missing a telephone call from his grandmother for his birthday. She didn’t pick up when he returned the call and, two weeks later, he received the devastating news that she had died of cancer.
“I didn’t know she had cancer, so I was angry and upset at the situation,” said Tom. “I wasn’t there for her and again, because my friend had also died, I started to have survivor guilt.”
On New Year’s Eve in 2020, Tom hit an all-time low and thought about taking his own life. Thankfully, after a phone call to the police, they were able to help him – something he will be eternally grateful for.
“I was very fortunate the police responded,” said Tom. “I wish I could say I got help there and then but I didn’t. I ignored it because I was really embarrassed. I couldn’t understand the severity of what I’d been through.”
Isolating throughout Covid didn’t help his situation but Tom realised he had to do something to help himself and so he started to write things down. He now records his experiences, thoughts and feelings in a blog as well as on Instagram and YouTube in the hope he can help and inspire other people struggling with mental health issues.
Now super fit – and with his private pilot’s licence under his belt – he’s also begun travelling and vlogging about his experiences.
Around 350 children and young people are diagnosed with cancer in Warwickshire and the West Midlands every year, but research is helping to save more lives.
Cancer Research UK is working to discover new ways to treat the disease, so all children and young people can live longer, better lives, free from the fear of cancer.
Spokesperson for the charity, Paula Young, said: “Tom is an absolute inspiration and we’re honoured that he’s launching our Star Awards this year.
“Cancer in children and young people is different to cancer in adults, from the types of cancer to the impact of treatment – and many youngsters may experience serious long-term side effects. That’s why we’re supporting dedicated research to ensure more children and young people survive cancer with a good quality of life.
”We’re urging people to nominate inspirational youngsters for a Star Award now, so that many more affected by this devastating disease can receive the acknowledgement they so richly deserve.”
The nominate for the Star Awards, which are run in partnership with TK Maxx, visit www.cruk.org/starawards
To view Tom’s social media posts and videos, visit https://linktr.ee/ thomasashley99