Former Burnley College student diagnosed with cancer is raising awareness through inspirational blog
A young woman from Pendle who was diagnosed with cancer last year has been writing a blog to help inspire others.
Ashleigh Rimmer was delivered the devastating news that she had Non-Hodgkin lymphoma in July.
Since that day, the 22-year-old’s life has become a non-stop series of hospital appointments, scans and anxious waits; but it has also led to her discovering and embracing a support network that stretches far beyond her family and friends in Colne.
My Biggest Fight Yet (AMR) – which can be read here – was started just two months after Ashleigh’s diagnosis.
It charts the former Park High School pupil’s ups and downs and does not shy away from a disease which “brought her whole world crashing down around her”.
However, despite the sombre subject matter Ashleigh’s blog is brimming with uplifting warmth and light-hearted humour; a collection of candid observations which shed light on her journey and leave you smiling throughout.
“I’m not sure why I started it really,” said Ashleigh. “I hadn’t written a word in five years. I wanted to tell people I had cancer but I didn’t want to have to keep telling people I had cancer. I found it therapeutic, it helped me release a lot of things. I didn’t know what to write about but I enjoy it so much. And when you see lots of people commenting on it on Facebook it’s so nice.”
What started out as a place for her to store her thoughts and feelings has now become something much more.
Through it she has met fellow cancer patients all with their own stories to tell. She is now a member of Facebook group “Cancer Chicks” – a group where girls can share advice on how to make a terrifying ordeal all the more bearable.
More importantly for Ashleigh though – who was studying to become a trainee nurse associate before her diagnosis – it has helped her to raise awareness.
“I actually started with a cough in July 2017. I went to the doctors a few times and they thought I had asthma at first. So they gave me an inhaler. Then when I started with the abnormal itching they thought it was hay fever. Really bad night sweats was another one of the symptoms. I finally had an x-ray and that’s when things started to get bad. They had been looking at me thinking, ‘you’re a fit and healthy 21-year-old it’ll be nothing’. It wasn’t nothing though, it was a tumour.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are or how fit or healthy you are perceived to be; nobody knows your body better than you. If you don’t feel right make sure you get checked out and make sure you point out all the symptoms.
“Since I have been at Leeds the level of care has been amazing. They saved my life. I am on the young person’s cancer ward and although it’s been really scary it’s nice being with people your own age.”
The first question Ashleigh, a former Burnley College student, asked after receiving her diagnosis was ‘will I lose my hair?’.
Her blog post on hair loss is both heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure.
“And breathe … this is a tough one’ it begins before going on to document each emotional step; from the day her hair began falling out to the day the “weight was lifted from her shoulders” and she decided to shave her head.
“It was at this moment I felt I got my control back.”
It was also the moment where she realised she would now be “twinning” with her dad; and the moment she decided to grow her already extensive hat collection, now ranging from bobble hats to glitter turbans.
And when people ask her why she’s got short hair now, her answer is just as short: “I’ve got cancer.”
“It used to bother me at first, people looking at me, but I’ve got used to it. If somebody gives me a strange smile in the street I just smile back. If somebody comes to the house I just whip off my hat so they can see my bald head and then it won’t shock them again.”
Blog writing duties have been shared once. The post, entitled “A Brother’s Perspective”, is written by sibling Lewis (26) and tells of the gamut of emotions he went through upon finding out his little sister had cancer.
“I asked if I could write one,” he said: “I work quite unsocial hours so getting a balance between work life and home life has always been quite difficult. When I heard the news though everything stood still. It makes you look at things differently.
“I wanted people to know that they don’t have to shy away from it. You have to remain positive and strong. It’s ok not to be ok but you have to be there for the person who is going through it. As soon as the blog was posted I had people messaging me I didn’t even know saying it had changed their outlook.”
Ashleigh’s family – Lewis, mum Janis, dad Nigel and boyfriend Connor – of course feature prominently. Without them she says there is no way she would be where she is now.
The countless hours spent in cold waiting rooms, meetings with surgeons, her mum making every single one her meals fresh from scratch, back rubs from her dad. This is a family in it together.
And it would be impossible for them not to be proud of Ashleigh. To approach these last few months the way she has with remarkable spirit, fortitude and that wonderful sense of humour is inspiration personified and a testament to her and those around her.
“It has made me look at things a lot differently,” she said. “It has made me look at myself differently. It definitely teaches you who your real friends are. Some people don’t understand it. Friends would be asking me, ‘Why can’t you come out, why can’t you do this?’ When you’re having chemo, you just can’t.
"I could not go to busy places because of risk of infection, I couldn’t eat certain foods. You’re tired all the time. It’s only on my third week after finishing a bout of chemo I feel brave enough to tackle Asda. And even then I’m walking round like a 90-year-old. A lot of friends have gone but the ones I have now are closer and I’ve also made lots of new ones.
“It does change your entire perspective. When people complain about a cold, I think ‘well it could be worse’. When people complain about work, I think ‘I wish I could go to work’.
“It is scary but you’ve got to try and see the funny side of things. If people came round and were crying all the time then that wouldn’t help. I don’t want sympathy smiles, I want people to smile and laugh.”
She smiles: “I am now living by the motto You Only Live Once.”
Ashleigh is currently waiting for her next scan and to see what the next steps are. In the meantime she wants to continue raising money for good causes having already raised more than £1,500 for Lymphoma Action.
“I want to try and raise money for the ‘youth zone’ they have on the ward where I am. There’s pool tables and jukeboxes there but they really need funding. My family and Connor’s family have just sponsored a final treatment bell there because they didn’t have one, so that was nice.”
And her next blog is never too far away.
“The blogs give me a boost of support and confidence. When I’m feeling down I just publish a blog. Sometimes there’s hundreds of comments on Facebook and they’re really nice.
“People from the ward read it as well. I was in there one day and a lad came over to me and said ‘you’re the girl from the AMR blog’. I felt like a celebrity. I thought people might start wanting autographs.”