At the age of 25, middle-distance runner Andrew McAslan is facing an uncertain future. Like any promising athlete he had hopes of progressing and competing at international level but, now, he is learning to deal with having incurable cancer.
In July this year, McAslan was diagnosed with Stage Four Non-Hodgkin Follicular Lymphoma and is currently having immuno-chemotherapy.
Despite having his symptoms for around six months, it’s highly likely the Manchester athlete – now living in Leeds – could have had the disease for around three to four years, and it had just been slowly growing. But he also has to come to terms with the fact there is no cure for his condition.
Even if remission is achieved it will still be living in his body with a high chance it will start growing again. There is also no indication of when or how severe that may be.
While McAslan now has a diagnosis, the journey to get to that point was far from straightforward. The runner had previously struggled with glandular fever through university but, despite all the problems that came with it, he managed to win a bronze medal in the BUCS 800m two years ago.
With that achievement in mind, the 25-year-old had hopes of progressing onto the international level but those ambitions were soon dashed. His form in 2020 started to deteriorate, he wasn’t running well and he was struggling to understand why.
Then, in January, his condition took another turn. “In training I didn’t feel like myself and I was sort of running ok, but not feeling great,” McAslan said. “It was around January time when I started to get really strange symptoms in my stomach and bowel. “I’d try to sleep and it would just be pulsating.
It felt like I was constantly bloated lower down and in a different area. “It was nothing like I had experienced before and I tried to train through it, then it started to affect my training. “I called the GP and explained and they initially went straight to saying I had IBS (Irritable bowel syndrome). I even pushed the blood tests to see what was going on.”
Those blood tests showed McAslan’s iron and haemoglobin levels were low, and he was given iron tablets to try and improve them.
However, deep down, the runner still didn’t feel his diagnosis was right.
“I wasn’t fully convinced about the IBS so I started taking the iron tablets,” he said.
“That improved my training a little bit and made me feel better, but not amazing.
“I actually did a race, even though my training wasn’t going that well. It was a lot slower than what I normally do but it went really badly. My partner saw me halfway through and thought something’s wrong with it.
“From there my training really went downhill – I struggled to run at the normal sort of pace I was at.
“For example, in a session I’d get to 100m and my body would feel as if it had just lost all energy. From there it was like ‘maybe we need to go see someone else and get another opinion’.
In the end McAslan saw two other consultants to get to the bottom of the problem.
Both came to the same conclusion, that the runner had IBS ‘probably due to stress’. One even said they could rule out cancer straight away because McAslan was ‘too young’.
“You don’t just get a lump out of nowhere that big”
“As time went on a big lump under my chin developed, a really hard lump,” the 25-year-old continued.
“As soon as that came up we thought ‘that didn’t seem right’. You don’t just get a lump out of nowhere that big.
“I went again to a GP and immediately she said ‘I need to refer you, that doesn’t look good’.
“She got an urgent referral from there and, within two weeks, had a scan on that specific lump and they wanted to do a biopsy because of what they’d seen on the scan.
“It was strange with all the different avenues I had gone down to get checked and scanned, this new lump comes and those checks all came to a head.
“Then I got the news that I had some sort of lymphoma.”
That’s the news no one ever wants to hear, suddenly McAslan’s world was looking very different.
All the aspirations for international competition, and becoming the best athlete he could be, were pushed to the side. Now his life was what took priority.
“I’m 25 and it’s the last thing I expected to happen at this age,” he added.
“It’s properly turned my world upside down. I’ve gone from being care-free and you would never expect your life to be in question at this age.”
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He continued: “It makes you focus on what’s important. The tricky thing is trying to focus on, if you want to do something, try and live more in the moment and not worry about what’s to come.
“The tricky thing is, at the moment, we have to shield and no one’s been into our flat. We have to meet people outside.
“It’s definitely about doing the things you want to do and not put it off.
“The mental side of it, it’s been tough to come to terms with the situation but I have managed to stay positive and really focus on just getting the most out of life at any moment.
“I’m just focusing on putting myself in the best position and not feeling sorry for myself.
“If you have a good mindset, that’s half the battle in making sure your body feels good.”
“She’s the hero of this story”
Since sharing the news about his diagnosis, McAslan has been flooded with messages from the athletics community wishing him well.
But his family, and especially his partner – 800m athlete Leah Barrow – have been a tremendous support through it all.
“She has been so amazing,” McAslan said about his partner.
“I don’t do much research about the disease, I thought I’d focus on keeping myself in a good headspace and relax – all that sort of stuff – when I’m feeling rough.
“She does a lot of research and she actually found the Follicular Lymphoma Foundation. This Facebook page has so much information about real-life experiences, symptoms and how to deal with different things.
“I really have her to thank for how well this fundraiser has done.”
He added: “She’s the hero of this story if you like. It wouldn’t have happened without her.”
Hopes of finding a cure for McAslan’s cancer are pinned on the fundraiser in question, which is raising money for the Follicular Lymphoma Foundation.
The organisation was founded by Nicola Mendelsohn, the vice-president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa for Facebook, after she too was diagnosed with follicular lymphoma four years ago.
The Foundation’s aim is to fund research, raise awareness, help patients and ultimately find a cure for the disease.
“I’m so thankful for the Follicular Lymphoma Foundation campaign,” McAslan added.
“I think it’s amazing what they’re doing, trying to find a cure and trying to find a cure in the quickest time.
“With everything that’s gone on with Covid that’s given this area a boost to know that it can be done, you just need the resource.
“Cancer’s been underfunded for so long. When I was diagnosed I was obviously in huge shock and really upset but I hadn’t heard of that before.”
What is Follicular Lymphoma?
- Follicular lymphoma (FL) is an incurable type of blood cancer that affects the lymph glands.
- There are over 100 different types of blood cancers and over 60 types of lymphoma. There are two main types of lymphoma – Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
- FL is the second most common type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and in most cases is an indolent (slow growing) type of blood cancer that affects the lymph glands.
- Lymph glands form part of your immune system and act as a filter to help fight infection.
- Lymphoma develops when abnormal white cells are made that don’t work properly. These cells then increase in number, typically in your lymph glands resulting in painless swelling, usually in one or more of your lymph nodes.
For more information visit the Follicular Lymphoma here
“If you think something’s not right and you’re not happy with the answer, just push”
McAslan has plenty of his own battles to fight as he learns to deal with his incurable condition.
But he’s also taken it upon himself to raise awareness and spread his message far and wide in the process.
“I want a cure as much as the next person, to not worry when it’s going to come back and to have treatment again,” he said.
“The part I want to raise awareness about is actually how hard it is to diagnose.
“So many people, their blood tests seem fairly normal. Mine was a bit off mainly because I was trying to do athletics training with it.
“If you can catch it earlier, they can manage how much it’s growing so they can treat it at the perfect time.
“My family were great in helping pay to see consultants for a meeting but there’s a lot of people who might not be able to do that.”
He added: “If you think something’s not right and you’re not happy with the answer, just push.
“Don’t be silly with it and get it checked.”
To donate to the fundraiser click here.