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‘I was an athlete aged 35 when I was told I had incurable cancer, not IBS’

Ashley Black, a PE teacher and former Scotland water polo player, worked out several times a week and always ate healthily.

When she developed gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating and discomfort, she presumed it was diet related.

Indeed her doctors told her she had irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but being just 30-years-old, they never suspected anything more sinister. Despite their initial diagnosis, changes to Ashley’s eating habits never brought relief and the pain in her abdomen worsened.

“I was continually going to the hospital, the gastroenterologist and my GP,” she told i. “It was never resolved. I knew there was something wrong.

“I was the sort of person who was always on the go. I was really fit. I’d get up at 5.30am to get up and go to bootcamp classes.”

But around five years into her symptoms, Ashley felt exhausted. “I was finding that after a gym session or a class it was taking me around a week to recover which was not like me. I felt completely wiped out, like I had nothing left to give,” she said.

Ashley had gone back and forth to her GP over the years and had blood tests, including tumour markers – substances that might be raised if there is a cancer yet these were normal.

But eventually, she had an endoscopy, a procedure to examine the digestive tract which led to a diagnosis of neuroendocrine cancer, a form of cancer which can difficult to detect according to Macmillan Cancer Support.

By then the disease had spread and she had four tumours next to her kidney, in her neck and her chest.

“I never expected to be told I had cancer at 35,” said Ashley. “They said it could have been growing for five years. I never thought it was cancer. It was a lot to take in.”

Living with cancer

Neuroendocrine tumours develops from cells of the neuroendocrine system. Neuroendocrine cells – which are similar to nerve cells and make hormones which control how different organs in the body work – are found all over the body, in organs such as the stomach, bowel, pancreas and lungs.

Around 36,000 people are affected by the illness in the UK, with over 5,000 newly diagnosed each year, according to Neuroendocrine Cancer UK.

Ashley, from Larbert, Falkirk, who is now 41, said her symptoms were confused with IBS because she would feel pain often around half an hour after she ate. “I’d be in so much discomfort I’d be lying on the floor,” she said. “It went on for hours.”

A scan in 2018 showed that there was “something pushing” into Ashley’s stomach, which following a biopsy was determined to be a tumour sat next to her kidney and pancreas.

Ashley and her partner had planned to get married that year. “I’d been told I had cancer, but I didn’t know which type it was or how severe it was,” she said.

Intead the couple brought their wedding forward and organised it within a few weeks. “I just wanted us to have our special day before I got sick from treatment,” she said.

Ashley had an operation to remove the tumour near her kidney in 2020 and last April she had surgery for the mass on her neck which had grown.

Ashley Black was shocked to find out her cancer is not curable (Photo: Ashley Black)
Ashley Black was shocked to find out her cancer is not curable (Photo: Ashley Black)

She was also treated with a drug that’s a synthetic version of the natural hormone aimed at slowing down the growth of the cancer, although she has since been told her condition is incurable.

“When I first found out, I shut myself away and couldn’t speak to anyone,” said Ashley, who works with children with special needs. “It’s incredibly hard when you’re facing the unknown.”

Her cancer diagnosis has robbed her of the chance to start a family and has struggled seeing her friends moving on and having children, but Ashley says the support from Maggie’s Charity has been invaluable.

“I’m now living with cancer. It’s hard to predict how long I have. Some people live 20 years. I’m just trying to stay positive.

“My life changed completely. I was a very active person, always going at 100 miles an hour, very sporty. I now had to slow down.

“Future decisions like having children with my new husband were taken off the table. I was watching my friends do the things I wanted to do.

“There were not many other 35 year olds I knew who had cancer, let alone neuroendocrine cancer.

“Through Maggies, it was a hugely support to be able to meet other young women with cancer. You can speak to therapists, friends and family but it’s important to be able to speak to people who know exactly what you’re going through.

“I felt so lost and it was really good to have that space where I could be really open and honest and talk about how I was feeling. I also love the relaxation sessions at Maggie’s.”

Ashley said she tries to stay positive despite the uncertainty. “My mindset is that I can’t change it, but I can focus on what I need and what I can do for myself now to help.

“Recently, somebody told me a story about Native Indians and their buffalo who are a symbolic, significant species. When a storm is coming in, the buffalo will run straight towards the storm. They know that if they get there quicker, the hardest part will be over sooner.

“For me, I have sometimes run away from the hardest parts of cancer, it feels really hard to go towards. But it always catches up with me.

“So my motto has become ‘be the buffalo’. It allows me to be powerful, brave and go for it.”

About Maggie’s Charity

  • Maggie’s has 24 centres in the grounds of NHS cancer hospitals.
  • The charity has nearly 28 years of experience providing free cancer support and information.
  • In 2023, it had more than 310,000 visits to its centres, 45,000 of those from people newly diagnosed with cancer. Nearly 35,000 were from people newly caring for someone with cancer.
  • It offers a seven week course called Where Now? designed to help cancer patients with physical and emotional rehabilitation after their treatment to help them to live as normal a life as possible following a diagnosis. 

For more information visit

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