Just over a year ago, Ben Ashworth, a dad-of-three who lives in Broadgate, Preston, was given just six to 12 months to live, after being diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer.
But 18 months on, the 35-year-old has completed six gruelling marathons in six months, pushing his body and spirit, to the limit and raising almost £15,000 for charity in the process.
As a youngster, former library worker Ben would see his dad run marathons but due to suffering from bad asthma, he never thought he would be able to tackle one himself.
However Ben was determined to complete a run and signed up for the Great North Run in 2011.
He says: “I found out I was quite good at running so when I completed the Great North Run, I had the ambition to work up to completing a marathon.”
It was while he was training for his first proposed marathon at Blackpool in March 2012 that Ben first experienced the symptoms that would later reveal themselves to be bowel cancer.
But at the time, he shrugged them off thinking they were related to his training schedule rather than anything sinister.
“At the time, I didn’t think anything of it,” he recalls. “I thought losing weight was down to running and my change in bowel activity was simply ‘runners trots’ as was the abdominal pain I was experiencing.”
Numerous visits to the doctors suggested IBS because bowel cancer is relatively unheard of in a man Ben’s age but, when the final diagnosis came while Ben’s wife, Louise, was pregnant with their third daughter, the cancer was already at Stage 4.
After two operations to try to remove the cancer and several failed chemotherapy attempts, Ben was told he had between six and 12 months left to live.
“If I had been more aware of the symptoms of bowel cancer, maybe I wouldn’t be in this position because 90 per cent of cases can be cured if they are caught early enough,” says Ben.
Spurred on by Louise and their daughters, Skye, nine, Isobel, four and 21-month-old Heidi, Ben signed up for the Berlin marathon in January this year and while training for that, Ben decided he would try and complete a marathon a month in the lead up to the international event and researched what other activities were available.
In total, Ben ran the Blackpool Marathon in April, completing it in five hours and 30 minutes, the Windermere Marathon in May, which took him exactly one hour longer than the first, the Wakefield marathon in June which he ran in six hours, 10 minutes, the Summer Around The Reservoir Northampton Marathon in July, completed in six hours, thirty minutes, the Isle of Man marathon in August where he smashed a personal best of four hours and 53 minutes and, finally, the Berlin marathon, completed in September in four hours and 56 minutes.
Although Ben says he was “gutted” to have missed out on a new personal best, he describes it as “a truly great day”.
“It was a tough, hot race, which I stupidly ran in new shoes. I was still exhausted the day after.
“I had great support from friends and family who travelled to Berlin and we’ve been through a lot together these last months. They have seen me toil and struggle.
“At the beginning, there was a possibility my health might fail and we wouldn’t even make it to Berlin.
“But the atmosphere was incredible.
“Most of my marathons have involved 400 or fewer runners so to be among 40,000 was amazing.”
Looking back on his incredible achievement, Ben says he has a number of highlights.
“I have a few – I’m being greedy,” he says.
“The first was when I crossed the finish line at the first marathon.
“I had a real sense of elation thinking I could complete the challenge and to set the precedent was really important to me.
“The second was completing marathon number three at Wakefield because that was really tough and after a really tough round of chemo.
“A man named Tom Hacker really helped me though that one.
“He had seen my story online and reached out to me to meet up to run it together and he really helped to keep me going.
“I had nothing in me but getting through it simply by determination was really satisfying.
“My third highlight has got to be running a personal best at the Isle of Man.
“I crossed the line at four hours 53 minutes and it was quite a hilly course so I was really proud of myself.”
And Ben’s fans from social media and those who had heard of his challenge through the Lancashire Evening Post and other outlets were there to cheer him on.
“People had heard a lot about me and my challenge by that point so everyone was cheering and applauding me as I finished.
“I like to pretend it’s because I’m a pro-athlete and not because I’ve got cancer though,” he laughs.
But despite the adulation from the crowd, there were only four people Ben was interested in seeing him cross the finish line.
“It was nice to get the recognition but the greatest thing was the look on Louise and the girls’ faces – every bloke wants that from his wife and children”.
At the moment, there are no signs of Ben slowing down and now this challenge has been completed, he has plans to put together a year of reasons to stay active.
“This might be the last of my six marathons, but it is by no means the last challenge I’ll tackle,” he says.
“Soon I’ll be announcing my year of action and I’m hoping to do something, perhaps the three peaks cycling challenge, with my siblings.
“I’ve got two brothers and three sisters who are all quite active so it would be nice for us to do something together and get them involved.”
And as long as his health holds up, Ben has vowed to continue to raise money and awareness of bowel cancer and its symptoms
He says, “I’m very lucky to be able to do this.
“There are many people going through chemotherapy treatment who can’t do these things so I feel a responsibility to raise awareness and keep going.
“Of course, chemotherapy does affect me. The last course I had knocked me out but I know of many people with cancer who can’t exercise who would if they were able and I can, so I feel strongly that I shouldn’t waste my opportunities.
“If I can run a marathon I should do and do so without complaint.
“I have a responsibility to do all I can to raise awareness of bowel cancer, while I can so that others don’t have to go through what cancer patients and our families have to.”
On his return from Berlin, Ben will undergo further scans to see how the treatment has affected his cancer.
“The treatment I’m having at the minute will eventually stop working, but I’m just trying to concentrate on what I can do now.” he says.
“I know my situation is serious, but this has kept me afloat and has given me a lot more energy.
“Before I started running I felt like I had spent two years in bed. There was no structure to my day, but this has given me focus.
“I never thought I could run one marathon, let alone six and strangely this is the fittest I have ever been so it is really important for me to stay active because I feel it is helping my fight against cancer.”
Cancer charity Macmillan has revealed in its ‘Move More’ report that exercise can reduce the risk of dying from cancer and minimise the side effects of treatment.
It also revealed that bowel cancer patients’ risk of dying from the disease can be cut by around 50 per cent by doing around six hours of moderate physical activity a week
“When I tell people I have terminal cancer, their faces just drop, but I don’t want to make them sad.
“I want to let them know that this is my journey. Everyone has their own stuff to deal with – people may have money worries or problems with work.”
At the beginning of his mission, Ben aimed to raise £10,000 for four charities, including Beating Bowel Cancer
But supporters have been so generous, more money has been raised than he ever thought possible, smashing the original target.
The total raised now stands at nearly £14,000. This will be shared between the Rosemere Cancer Foundation, Macmillan Cancer Support, Beating Bowel Cancer and CLIC Sargent
The marathon man has nothing but praise for his family and friends who have helped him through both his cancer diagnosis and his six marathon challenge.
“For me it has been amazing to see how incredible my family and friends are.
“I think in a situation like ours, everybody’s resources are being used and they have shown just what they’re made of.
“Until something like this happens, you never know how you’re going to react.
“I always say that there are many good things to come from having cancer.
“I’ve made lots of new friends, I’ve retired which has enabled me to spend lots of time with family and especially my girls. How many young fathers are able to say the same?
“Having to retire also meant we had the opportunity to go to Disneyland Paris which was amazing.
“I want to show my daughters that my positive spirit has endured, that I haven’t merely succumbed to cancer and I won’t let illness get in the way of living my life and realising my dreams.
“I just want to make my wife and daughters proud.”
Ben continues: “One of the scariest things about the challenge is how quickly the six months have passed.
“When I said that I was going to do it, its was a faintly ridiculous idea but I said at the time, ‘If I don’t make any plans, I’ll never do anything.’
“In a lot of ways I could have done nothing this year but lie in bed. But to me, this is the greatest reason for carrying on.
“Nothing worth doing is done by sitting around.”
To donate to Ben’s charity pot, visit http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/BensBowelMovements