When Ashley West was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer at the age of 30 she did what many young people do when faced with a challenge — she created an Instagram account.
Launched with a photo of Ashley on the weekend in London when she first felt something wasn’t right, the account charts the countless hospital visits, the dreaded chemotherapy and the time she took part in charity fundraiser Courage on the Catwalk.
The last post, however, is different. It was written on May 19 this year by Ashley’s family. It says that Ashley died at Aberdeen palliative care facility Roxburghe House in the early hours of the morning.
This is the story of Ashley’s breast cancer fight as witnessed by her mum Val Sutherland, who is still coming to terms with the loss of her daughter.
But it is also a story told by Ashley herself through her Instagram account, a standing testament to her struggle, her hopes and her unfailing optimism.
Even the name of the account, “t1ts_up_at_30″, just shows what kind of person she was.
“She kept her sense of humour,” Val says. “She kind of got us through it, and everybody that she spoke to, she was just that kind of person.”
April 11, 2022
From Ashley’s first Instagram post – “I wanted to create this account to document my treatment journey, raise awareness and share my experience as a young woman living with a cancer diagnosis.”
Ashley was in London when she felt a skin irritation on her chest. She wasn’t too concerned as she’d had sensitive skin before.
The pain got worse and she thought about going to her GP. But it was Christmas 2021 and she didn’t want to bother anyone.
“Because of her age, she kept being told that it was nothing, that it was an infection,” says Val, who sat with Ashley through multiple trips to the breast clinic. “She got four different lots of antibiotics, which didn’t work. And every week, the inflammation was getting worse.”
Ashley, who was a primary school teacher at Mile End in Aberdeen, eventually sought a second opinion from a private clinic.
By this time, she also had pain in her armpit, so she was referred to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary where she was given multiple scans, including for the first time a mammogram.
A few days later, the results came back. Ashley and Val were told it was a serious invasive cancer.
“It just hit us like a brick,” Val says. “There are no words to describe it, you’re just numb.”
April 12, 2022
“Stage 3, Grade 3 invasive ductal carcinoma. Triple negative. Nonmetastatic (luckily), but it is in my skin and chest wall.”
From the start, Ashley was told the cancer was inoperable. A week after her diagnosis she started chemotherapy treatment, which she endured with typical fortitude.
At one point in her blog, she mentions a doctor who tells her she is “one of the strongest, bravest women he has ever met”.
“She stayed really strong,” Val says. “She was always the one that was positive.
Val tells stories of Ashley as a young girl in Kincorth, when her quiet determination set her aside from her more boisterous younger brother. Ashley, Val says, just got on with things.
When it came to a career, she first thought about studying law but then changed her mind and studied sociology at Aberdeen University. That was where she met Grant, who she married in 2018.
It was also where she decided to go into teaching, ending up at Mile End Primary School in Aberdeen and living with Grant in Mannofield.
“She was the perfect child,” Val recalls. “When she was at school, she would just get out of bed, go to school and come back and do her homework.”
May 13, 2022
“I don’t want to jinx it, but this is the best I’ve felt after a round of chemo! Think the new medication is making a big difference — hopefully that continues!”
Ashley’s blog is full of stories of chemo that doesn’t seem to end, new wounds and abscesses that seep painfully and exhausting days where she can hardly lift a finger.
But it also reveals a seemingly limitless optimism. She believed she would one day get back to teaching.
Watching on, Val was constantly amazed by Ashley’s optimism. But she couldn’t help but worry.
“The hope was that she would get back to work,” Val says. “But personally, I knew that she wouldn’t. It wasn’t until the final weeks, when she was told she had a few months left — that was a real shock. And then later on that, it was weeks. And she didn’t even get that.”
January 6, 2023
“Surgery went better than expected… The last thing I remember is being asked what my favourite cocktail was, listing quite a few and not quite finishing the words ‘strawberry daiquiri’.”
Ashley’s goal was always to beat cancer, and her progress was so positive that doctors finally agreed to operate.
The surgery, which took place on January 4, removed Ashley’s breast, ending the excruciating pain she felt from her chest abscess. The surgeon also removed the tumour in her armpit and took out most of her chest muscle and some muscle from her back.
The operation was a success, but it didn’t end the pain. It just morphed into a different tone.
“She couldn’t sit, she couldn’t sleep, she couldn’t lie,” Val remembers. “She just couldn’t get comfortable. It was terrible to see her like this. Awful. So the medication had to be increased and then she ended up on oxygen.”
March 18, 2023
“I was hoping that despite everything I was being told about my cancer & my odds, that a year on I could shout from the rooftops that I was ‘cancer-free’… But this disease has had other ideas.”
Ashley started the blog to chart her journey, but also to help raise awareness of breast cancer and the rare triple-negative diagnosis she received.
She peppered her accounts of hospital visits with tips and advice she picked up along the way, such as the cold cap she wore that stopped her losing all her hair from chemo.
The teacher in her also warned about the risks of breast cancer and how best to detect it.
“She wanted people to just to know their own bodies and if something doesn’t feel right, to get it checked out, ASAP,” Val says. “If you know that if something’s not right within yourself, keep pushing.”
April 26, 2023
“I can’t believe we had our final rehearsal at the beach ballroom last night (and that I made it!!)”
Ashley was determined to take part in Courage on the Catwalk, the charity fundraiser held by Friends of Anchor at Aberdeen Beach Ballroom that turns cancer patients into models for the evening.
She was very sick at the time but was able to leave the hospital in time for the show.
Ashley was delighted. Val less so.
“I tried to dissuade her from doing it because she really wasn’t well,” Val recalls. “She couldn’t breathe, she was on oxygen and she was in severe pain.”
“But she was determined not to let people down. That was the whole thing.”
Ashley ended up doing two shows — one on Saturday night on May 6 and one the following night on Sunday.
Val says it “took everything out of her” and she was back in hospital early the next week.
Just days later a scan showed the cancer had spread to Ashley’s bones, lungs and liver.
May 19, 2023
“It is with deep sadness and a massive hole in my heart that I have to say after 18 months of bravely battling, unfortunately, Ashley passed away suddenly but peacefully in her sleep this morning.”
Val was not with her daughter when she died. After weeks of pain and increased medication, Ashley was moved to the palliative care unit at Roxburghe House, where Val and husband Grant watched over her on shifts.
On Thursday, May 18, Val went home to get some sleep and in the early hours of the next day was woken by her phone. It was Grant at the hospice, telling her that Ashley was gone.
May 23, 2023
“Ashley’s funeral will take place on Friday 2nd June 2023, at 11:15am, in the West Chapel at Aberdeen Crematorium.”
Ashley’s funeral was a celebration of pink and glitz. A Disney princess fan since childhood, her flowers were a combination of pink and white while the coffin was sparkly pink.
In the eulogy, the celebrant listed everything Ashley had achieved in her short life, giving special mention to Ashley’s friends and colleagues who filled the crematorium to bursting point.
Her dad Scott also spoke, saying his daughter “will always be loved and never forgotten”.
“I felt so proud,” Val says of the funeral. “They showed pictures from all through her life, and that’s what got me. It was so moving.”
More than five months on from Ashley’s funeral, Val says she is taking each day as it comes. Some days she can talk about Ashley for hours, while on others, the slightest memory brings tears.
“The one thing that gets me by is I know that she was not in pain anymore,” Val says. “That’s the only thing that gives you some comfort.”
If you have been touched by Ashley’s story, you can donate to her favourite cause, the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank, which aids research. Click here to donate.
Val spoke to the Press and Journal for Breast Cancer Awareness Month which runs throughout October. More information on how to spot the early signs of breast cancer and where to find local support can be found through NHS Grampian, Clan Cancer and Friends of Anchor.
Read all of Ashley’s journey on her Instagram account at t1ts_up_at_30.