A student who was diagnosed with cancer aged just 18 is working with charity Teenage Cancer Trust to raise awareness of the 5 main signs and symptoms of cancer in young people.  

Faaiza Bashir, now 22, is also keen to encourage open conversations about cancer within South Asian communities.   

New research from Teenage Cancer Trust released today has found that just 17% of 13-24-year-olds know all five of the main warning signs of cancer in young people, which are: lumps, bumps and swellings, unexplained tiredness, mole changes, persistent pain, significant weight change.

Faaiza began suffering with shoulder pain in 2020, just ahead of the first coronavirus lockdown, but put it down to carrying too many books back and forth from sixth form.  She then started to lose a lot of weight and feel fatigued.  

Faaiza said: “During lockdown, I started losing a lot of weight but didn’t realise this was a symptom at first because I was taking part in Ramadan, where I was fasting every day.  

“I realised I was very fatigued because I was sleeping most of the day, but it wasn’t normal for me, even though it was lockdown. I also started feeling breathless and struggled going up the stairs at home.”

Due to the pandemic, she could only speak with a GP by telephone, who diagnosed a chest infection and prescribed antibiotics and steroids.  She was later diagnosed with asthma, but her mother, who has asthma, was sceptical, and contacted her own GP, after which Faaiza received an in-person appointment. 

Faaiza said: “The GP listened to my chest and said she couldn’t hear anything coming in or out of my right lung. She called for an ambulance to take me to the hospital, as she thought I had sepsis. 

“Because of lockdown I had to go in the ambulance to A&E and hospital alone. It was my first time in A&E and I found the experience quite overwhelming and scary - not knowing what was going on, with the addition of the fear around Covid was a lot for my 18-year-old self to experience. 

“After an x-ray, I was told that my lung was full of fluid. I was sent to a lung ward in a different hospital. There, they put a chest drain in and tested the fluid. It was thought that I had pneumonia at this point. 

“After scans and still in hospital five days later, five or six people came over to my bed and explained that I had a mass in my chest. 

“Being 18 with no previous major health issues, and very little knowledge of cancer, I had no idea what that meant; I didn’t know that ‘mass’ was referring to cancer.”

The hospital called Faazia’s parents and broke the news to her and her family that the mass that had been found indicated lymphoma, cancer.  After a biopsy it was confirmed that she had primary mediastinal large B-cell lymphoma (PMBCL).

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Faazia was shocked by the diagnosis, having never suspected that her symptoms pointed to cancer. 

She said: “I couldn’t believe it.  My symptoms had become really bad to the point I couldn’t eat, or sleep, and I knew something was really wrong, but I thought it would be something that could be easily fixed. 

“I had no idea that the symptoms I had like pain, weight loss and fatigue could be signs of cancer, and had I been more aware I would have pushed for a GP appointment sooner and asked for scans too. 

“I also didn’t know how common lymphoma is in my age group either, which is why it’s important to share my story and raise awareness.”

Faazia added: “Within South Asian communities, cancer is taboo, so it’s not talked about and isn’t visible. I hope being open and sharing that I’ve been through cancer can help with that, and encourages people to seek support if they are worried about their health.” 

Following her diagnosis Faazia was advised to transfer to University College Hospital London (UCLH) for her treatment, where there is a Teenage Cancer Trust unit.  

Teenage Cancer Trust fund 28 specialist units in NHS hospitals across the UK where young people are kept in comfortable surroundings around those their own age and supported by specially trained charity nurses and youth workers throughout their ordeal.  

Crucially, the transfer to the unit meant that unlike her local hospital and despite the pandemic, Faazia’s mum could stay with her during her treatment. 

Faazia said: “My treatment started with chemo, which was the scariest part for me. I was informed of all of the medications I would be taking, what my chemo would entail and what symptoms I may experience after each chemo cycle, which was all very overwhelming and daunting. 

“The nature of the chemo I had meant that I had to stay as an inpatient for six days because I constantly had bags attached to me during the day and night. I had six rounds of chemo, and each round progressively got more difficult. 

“Because of Covid, we couldn’t leave our rooms on the unit so couldn’t meet other young people. I found it really difficult not being able to speak to other young people on the unit and share my experience and speak to people who I could relate to.”

However, Faazia was later able to attend an online event organised by Teenage Cancer Trust called Find Your Sense of Humour, which introduced her to other young people with cancer and made her feel less isolated.  

“Meeting and interacting with other young people felt ground-breaking.  

“It was so reassuring to know that there were other people out there who went through the same thing as me. Especially being isolated due to covid, it felt so validating and knowing I wasn’t alone was so nice. We added each other on social media and it’s really nice to see what everyone gets up to!

“At the event I met another young Pakistani who had cancer and it was great to speak to someone who not only knew what it was like to go through cancer but who came from the same community as me.  We still stay in touch.” 

Thankfully by March 2021 Faazia was told that no cancer cells were detectable.
“I got a call confirming I had no cancer cells left. It was incredible to hear I was cancer free, and my mum couldn’t quite believe we had got through it all. She asked multiple times ‘does this mean Faaiza is cancer free?’, something I still laugh at when I think back to the phone call. My sister and I filmed a video later that day telling all my family I was cancer free.”

That September Faaiza started studying Geography at Cambridge University and she’s now in her final year.  She says that cancer renewed her appreciation of life and that she’s grateful for every day. 

Dr Louise Soanes, Chief Nurse at Teenage Cancer Trust said: “These symptoms don’t necessarily mean that you have cancer, but it is really important to get checked out if you notice these changes in your body – especially if they last for a while and you can’t explain them. 
It’s normal to feel nervous before speaking to a doctor or a nurse - if you don’t feel that you can make the first step on your own, it can be a good idea to speak to someone you trust first. 
“There are things that you can do to help to prepare for a doctor’s appointment such as: writing down your questions beforehand, making a list of your symptoms and when you started to feel unwell, taking someone with you to the appointment, and being aware that you can ask doctors to explain something in a different way if you don’t understand, or even ask for another doctor to speak to you.” 
To find out more about the 5 main signs and symptoms of cancer in young people please visit www.teenagecancertrust.org/5signs