My name is Ashley Martin and I am a 23-year-old brain cancer survivor and I have HOPE for all young adults like myself!
I was a 20-year-old college student who had been diagnosed as autoimmune years earlier. I had been suffering from severe anxiety, fatigue, headaches, migraines, nausea & vomiting for most of my life. I had never let these symptoms stop me from living my life. My passion had always been raising money for various organizations from a battered women’s shelter to the children’s hospital to helping people pay for medical bills. I was also an avid snowboarder, loved camping, white-water rafting, backpacking and many other activities. As time went on after I left home for college, I became more & more ill. Though I was sick, I stayed in school and remained active in student organizations, fundraising, snowboarding and all of the other activities I had always enjoyed. Out of nowhere severe debilitating back pain & twitching began to take over my body in July 2011 after a backpacking trip. The pain took over my life as I could no longer participate in the high impact sports I had once loved so much.
Eventually, it became so hard to walk that I dropped out of school because I could no longer sit in classes without pain distracting me from my work. After seeing over 30 doctors in 3 states in an 8 month period, a back surgeon at Barrow Neurological began to question the twitching in my body. That amazing doctor discovered that those twitches were actually small seizures, and he recommended I get a scan of my brain. I was out doing some grocery shopping when I got a call from my neurologist confirming that I had a brain tumor, the good news was it was most likely benign. I visited a neurosurgeon and he had asked about a brain scan that I had in 2007. Apparently, I had a brain scan prior to getting a tonsillectomy when I was 17. The scan indicated that there was a flash on the MRI and the radiologist had recommended that a doctor should follow-up with another scan because it could have been a flash from the braces I had at the time or it could have been a brain tumor. In June, 2012, I had an open craniotomy. About 4 weeks later, I received the news that the tumor was called an Oligoastrocytoma, and it was, in fact, cancerous. The good news this time was that the surgeon was able to get the entire tumor out of my head. Well, at least that’s what brain surgeons like to tell you. Then they send you to an oncologist, where the doctor explains that even if they get the entire tumor shown on the MRI, there are always fissures of cells left behind that want to reproduce. The oncologist put me on chemotherapy to keep the cells from reproducing.
I hosted a benefit concert the following September with local bands and all of the proceeds went to an organization called Stupid Cancer. 3 months in to the therapy, the oncologist decided that I actually didn’t need chemo. 3 months after that, I was told the surgeon did not actually get all of the bulk of the tumor & I would need another surgery. I went to the 2013 OMG Stupid Cancer Conference in Las Vegas where I met many inspiring young adults that I could relate to on a very personal level. At the conference I won the “Get Busy Living” award for the effort I had put forth in fundraising and other aspects of my life in the face of adversity.
The second brain surgery took place in June of 2013. It was not until that time in May 2013 that doctors began trying to find the cause of the debilitating back pain. One of my doctor stated she was concerned that I didn’t really care that I had brain cancer, due to the fact that my back pain had caused me to begin using a walker & wheelchairs. Turns out that a disc in my back had completely degenerated and there were nerves trapped in between 2 of the vertebrae. It seems, while my body was fighting a brain tumor, an old injury to my lower back could not receive my body’s help to repair. So 2 months after my 2nd brain surgery, I underwent a back fusion and laminectomy in August 2013.
After all of that, the day came that I had been so looking forward to for a year; the day that I was going to see that the tumor site was clear of any visible tumor. On September 10, 2013, my mom & I went in to see my surgeon. We had planned on getting matching tattoos with my chosen word for my future – THRIVE. As I sat in my full body carbon fiber back brace cringing in pain; but trying not to show it, I put on my happy face & told the doc that I had talked Mom into getting a tattoo to celebrate my clean scan. Then the crushing blow, Dr. Smith lowered his head & said, “I’m afraid it is not good. It appears your tumor is back & has significantly jumped grades.” I thought, ‘grades’ as in “S” more than 1 grade! That would make it a Glioblastoma, Grade V. The following week, we sent my MRI to various doctors. One of which I had met at the Stupid Cancer OMG2013 conference (President of the Board of Stupid Cancer), the great Dr. Leonard Sender at UC-Irvine! Dr. Sender’s team wasn’t exactly sure what the mass was, some said that it may be tumor but could actually be an inflammatory process, as it didn’t really appear as a typical Glioblastoma. The next week I was set for my 4th neuro-surgery in 18 months. Brain surgery number 3 was September 23, 2013. My family, friends & many people I had connected to were holding on to “HOPE”. We held onto that small 4 letter word that can carry a person through some of the most frightening circumstances in life.
Hours into my 3rd craniotomy, Dr. Smith reported that the preliminary pathology did not show cancer cells. It turns out that my body had produced an extremely rare inflammatory reaction to a synthetic collagen that was used in my second brain surgery. My body had produced a rapid growing bulky benign tumor made up of scar tissue & synthetic collagen intertwined that had filled in the tumor space. I am so grateful for the news of a benign tumor. Shortly after this surgery I had a birthday party / fundraiser for Translational Genomics Research Institute and Stupid Cancer. It ended up being one of the most successful fundraisers I have ever done.
Since that time, I have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, cognitive difficulties & still fight debilitating back pain. These effects seem to try to rob me of living the life that I so desire, but the one thing that keeps me going is the hope that I will be able to live a long and fulfilling life.
As I write this, I am reminded of the 100,000’s of young adults who are fighting to keep hope alive in their daily struggle. To all my peers, keep hope alive and never give up!