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Felicity Ashley is a transatlantic rower, cancer survivor, business founder, mother of three, and former blue-chip marketing leader with more than 20 years’ experience. While recovering from a hip replacement, she took on ‘the world’s toughest row’ – while unknowingly battling bowel cancer.

I remember a phone conversation with my sister, Pip, that would literally change my life, and was the start of my journey to finding my purpose.

It was early 2019; I had recently had a full right hip replacement, and was on the mend, enjoying exercising without pain, and the opportunities that it presented. The news was filled with stories of a mysterious virus from China that was sweeping through the world. My children were 2, 4 and 7 and, like most working parents, I was juggling working with parenting, and soon to be adding home-schooling to that list.

My conversation with Pip started with the usual pleasantries. She’d just returned from Antigua having watched her husband, David, complete a 3,000-mile row across the Atlantic. How was it? I asked. But she quickly cut to the chase. ‘Anyway,’ she said, ‘I’ve got a boat, will you row the Atlantic with me?’ At that moment, a shiver ran down my spine and a seed was sown. Yet the words I gabbled were ‘I can’t possibly do it, I’ve just had a hip replacement, the kids are too young, I can’t leave them for that long.’ It seemed the socially appropriate thing to say to such a bonkers suggestion. Deftly dismissing my feeble protestations, Pip pulled out what I can only assume is one of her tried-and-tested Executive coaching ploys and said, ‘Stop giving me reasons why you can’t, and start giving me reasons why you can.’

When I put the phone down, I was grinning from ear to ear, with a fire in my belly, because I knew I was going to say yes. I just had to convince my husband, Paul, of the plan. Fortunately, he knows me well and knows that once I get the bit between my teeth, there is little point in putting up a fight. To his immense credit, and my immense relief, his words were ‘This can either be a short conversation or a long one, so let’s make it a short one’. And so began the adventure of a lifetime.

Over the next 18 months or so we put together our crew of four, working mothers, called ‘The Mothership’ and trained really, hard. The World’s Toughest Row is a 3,000-mile rowing race from the Canary Islands to Antigua, during which you’ll encounter huge waves and negotiate the physical and mental extremes inflicted by the race – sea sickness, salt-sores, weight-loss, sleep deprivation, self-doubt, fear. It was a challenge that would take us well and truly outside our comfort zone.

As a crew, our purpose was to inspire our children to dream big, and show them that ordinary people, like us, can achieve extraordinary things. We are all mothers of boys and girls, and it was incredibly important to us that they all grow up knowing that they can do anything they set their minds to, and that neither gender, nor age, should be a barrier.

This purpose is something that united us a crew and kept us going when the going got tough – and it did, a lot. Both during training and the race itself. There were countless times when we were faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges, and it would have been a lot easier just to throw in the towel – but having a purpose kept us going. It helped us to pick ourselves up each time we faced a setback – because each time we did that we were setting such an important example for our children.

Hearing how much we were inspiring others was really humbling. Yes, it’s something we’d set out to do, but I don’t think any of us could have dreamed that we’d have the kind of impact that we did.

One of my favourite memories was hearing the story of a little boy called Atticus, the son of a friend of a friend. He became so enthralled by our story that he’d ask his mum to read him our daily updates from the boat, and each day he constructed his own rowing boat in the sitting room made from sofa cushions and other household objects. My own daughter, Grace, did the same with her best buddy at preschool.

We completed our race on 21st January 2021 after 40 days, 11 hours and 25 minutes at sea – a moment that we’ll treasure and remember forever. We felt like superheroes as we rowed into a cacophony of lights and sounds in English Harbour as dusk fell over Antigua. Waving our flares in the air, surrounded by the razmataz of super-yachts, media, and supporters, we were on top of the world. We had achieved something that fewer than 250 women in the world had ever done. More people had been to space than rowed an ocean.

I returned home and went back to work, still basking in the limelight of the achievement and guzzling chocolate with reckless abandon to regain the 10kg I’d lost during the race. Life was good. But then life did what it tends to do, and it well and truly burst my bubble.

Just a few weeks after completing the row, I was diagnosed with bowel cancer. A colonoscopy revealed a large tumour in my bowel, something that had likely been growing for many months, possibly over a year. And suddenly, quite literally in the space of the seconds it took for the endoscopist to point at the screen and say, ‘that’s a tumour’, my world, and my family’s world, were turned upside down. I was staring down the barrel of another monumental challenge.

Immediately after my colonoscopy I was taken for scans to see if the cancer had visibly spread to other organs. I had to wait a few days for the results, during which time I didn’t know if I was facing a terminal diagnosis, or a curable treatment plan. They were the toughest days of my illness – trying to stay positive and banish the ‘what if’ scenarios that inevitably crept in.

The clinical staff were so kind but pragmatic. One of the nursing team who looked after me after my colonoscopy commented on my painted toenails (I still remember the coral colour). I told her that I was supposed to be going into London that night to attend the rowing awards celebration, but that I supposed I wouldn’t do that anymore. I still remember her response too – ‘nothing has changed physically since you walked through the door this morning; go and enjoy your evening, have a few drinks, and you’ll deal with whatever is to come after that.’

I took her advice. I went to the awards celebration just hours after my diagnosis – determined to enjoy, re-live and take pride in what we’d all achieved. I knew that cancer may well mean there would be things in the future I couldn’t do and occasions I’d miss. But not quite yet. After shedding a few tears with my sister, we put on our glad-rags and celebrated our achievement alongside The Mothership crew and the rest of the fleet. We drank, we laughed, we danced, and we watched the sun rise.  

When the dust settled and I stopped to think, it seemed almost inconceivable. I was fitter and stronger than I’d ever been in my life, yet I had stage 3 cancer. The scans had not revealed any obvious secondary tumours, so although the tumour was large it was likely my treatment would be curative. Three weeks after my diagnosis, I had surgery to remove the tumour and surrounding lymph nodes, and a few weeks after that, a 3-month course of chemotherapy. When I woke up after surgery, I felt compelled to share my story. The juxtaposition of someone who had just completed one of the world’s toughest endurance events, with someone diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening condition, just seemed so extraordinary. I had felt invincible.

It was a massive wake-up call, a lesson that cancer is indiscriminate, it can happen to anyone, at any time in their life. This was a lesson that I needed to share – not to imbue young people with a sense of doom or fear of what may lie ahead, but to raise awareness that it could happen – and not to fall into the trap of thinking ‘it won’t happen to me’.

But there was also a second driver for wanting to share my story. And that was gratitude – gratitude to all those people before me who had shared their stories and given me an awareness of the symptoms which meant I acted before it was too late.

In particular, gratitude to fellow Atlantic rower, Ed Smith, and his late wife, Anna, for sharing their story. Anna was diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer when their daughter, Alba, was just 6 months old. Ed and his crew, Anna Victorious, took on the World’s Toughest Row to raise awareness of the symptoms of bowel cancer, and raise money for the charities that had helped them. I remember reading Ed’s posts about the symptoms of bowel cancer, which may well have saved my life.

So, from the depths of a devastating diagnosis, I found purpose. It was to encourage other people to be more aware of their bodies and act early if something doesn’t feel quite right. Because early diagnosis is the key to better patient outcomes. Having the courage to go to the doctor and voice your concerns could mean the difference between a terminal condition and a curable condition.

But it was also about showing that a cancer diagnosis doesn’t have to put an end to all your hopes and dreams; whatever your prognosis, you don’t have to pack up your bags and stop living life. And it can open the door to opportunities you never dreamed possible. It can give you a clarity and purpose that you didn’t have before, a reason to grab life with both hands and wring all the living out of it. Life is short; ageing is a privilege. Use it wisely.

It's one thing to find your purpose, but another thing to know what to do with it. And it took many conversations, over a few months, to help me see how it could become integral to my working life. While I had enjoyed my career in marketing, I had always envied those people who were driven by a vocation. When the idea of becoming a professional speaker was first raised, I dismissed it out of hand as ludicrous. How could I do that? Enter imposter syndrome. But there are only so many similar conversations you can have before the penny starts to drop and the ludicrous becomes conceivable. The acceptance that I have a story worth telling, which can help and inspire people, was the key to throwing caution to the wind and embarking on an adventure into the world of professional speaking.

And while this journey is only just beginning, I already feel a greater sense of contentment and satisfaction from living life in harmony with my new-found purpose.

Cancer has been a catalyst for positive change. Alongside the achievement of rowing the Atlantic as a mid-life mum, it has given me a new direction – to share my story through speaking, to motivate and inspire other people to believe they’re capable of so much more than they dared to dream. And it’s a way for me to ‘pass-forward’ the incredible gift of awareness I was given by Ed and Anna, and in turn, I hope, help someone else.

To hear more from Felicity, connect on LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/in/felicityashley) or visit her website www.felicityashley.com.

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