Gym teacher diagnosed with cancer at 22 urges young people to get symptoms checked

A gym teacher horrified to discover she had cancer aged just 22 is urging all young people to be aware of symptoms.

Angel Shepherd-Bascom, from Clapham, is campaigning for more awareness among people her age, two years after receiving the life-changing cancer diagnosis of her own.

Since her Hodgkin Lymphoma was diagnosed, she has made it her mission to share her story as widely as possible to help fight taboos about cancer in the black community.

The campaign is educating young people about the common signs and symptoms of cancer, and despite the pressure coronavirus has placed on the NHS, urging them to contact their GP at the earliest opportunity with any concerns.

She tells how her lack of awareness, as well as a negative experience of care when she did seek help, led to her delayed diagnosis.

Angel said: “When I noticed the lump in my neck, I ignored it for a while, I was young and healthy and assumed it would be nothing to worry about.  I didn’t think for a moment that it would be cancer.

“It wasn’t until the lump got really big and firm and other lumps appeared that I went to the GP – but they thought it was probably an infection and I wasn’t referred to the hospital for months. And then a specialist didn’t think it was cancer either, until a biopsy revealed the truth.

“If you have any concerns about your health my advice is to go to the GP. Don’t worry about seeming silly or wasting their time – it might not be cancer, but you should get it checked out.

“If you feel that they aren’t taking your concerns seriously, ask to see another doctor. Be persistent until you’re provided with the answers you need.”

Even after her diagnosis, elders in her community gave her unhelpful theories, myths and religious views on the disease.

She said: “There’s definitely a stigma around having cancer in my community. I kept my cancer diagnosis a secret at first, as some people even see cancer as a punishment from God.

“I was told that I should pray instead of having chemotherapy and leave everything in the hands of God. If I had done that I would have died. It stressed me out at a really stressful time.

“Irrational beliefs and bad advice can put your life at risk.”

Angel felt like a minority within a minority, as she was often the only black person on the hospital ward. She said: “I often felt pretty alone. As a young black woman who has had cancer it’s important to be visible and share my story.

“Through the Teenage Cancer Trust I’ve met other young people with cancer, including another young black woman who had kept her cancer secret from everyone for over a year. That shouldn’t be happening.

“On social media, I am able to connect with other black people who share their cancer journey with me. It’s lovely to connect with others who can relate.”

Cancer is the leading cause of death from disease in 13 to 24-year-olds but with early diagnosis, lives can be saved.  Through #BestToCheck, Teenage Cancer Trust is urging all young people to look out for:

  • lumps, bumps or swellings
  • unexplained tiredness
  • mole changes
  • persistent pain
  • significant weight change.

Dr Louise Soanes, Director of Services at Teenage Cancer Trust, said:

“Cancer is thankfully rare in 13 to 24-year-olds, accounting for just one per cent of all cancer diagnosis. But because cancer is less common in young people, they often have to visit their doctor up to three times before they are referred to a specialist.

“Cancer referrals were down by as much as 75 per cent in England across all age groups and though referral rates are recovering, there is no sign of coronavirus subsiding. We’re worried young people’s chances of survival – or long-term consequences – could be affected as their cancer goes undiagnosed.

“Coronavirus doesn’t stop people getting cancer. Early diagnosis can save lives.”

The charity is also urging doctors to refer young people at the earliest stage of suspicion when presenting with signs or symptoms.

“Latest research suggests cancer symptoms can vary from person to person, from persistent pain and lumps and bumps to unexplained bruising,” Dr Soanes added: “It is best to check and make a referral sooner rather than later.”

Find out more about #BestToCheck and the signs and symptoms of cancer here.

See Angel’s film here.

Pictured top: Angel Shepherd Bascom

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