The death of his baby daughter from leukaemia, changed the life of footballer, TV reality and social media star Ashley Cain who is about to embark on one of the world’s toughest and most dangerous challenges to the Arctic Circle to raise awareness of child cancer
In just over a month’s time, social media and TV reality show star Ashley Cain will climb aboard a one-man kayak and set off on a solo mission that is arguably the toughest and most dangerous adventure in the word. The 1,000-mile Yukon challenge starts in Canada and finishes in the Arctic Circle. Ashley has a time-limit of 10 days to complete the paddle but being the sort of bloke he is, he’s confident he can do it in seven or eight days – or who knows, even quicker. Assuming he doesn’t meet any bears on the way!
There’s no hiding place on the Yukon 1000. It’s Ashley, his sea kayak, a paddle, a tent, sleeping gear and whatever food and provisions he can carry. That’s it. No one to bail him out if he gets into difficulty or danger. “People have died doing this,” he says. “This is the toughest challenge I have ever taken on.” And Ashley has taken on some big ones – from successfully competing in TV’s SAS: Who Dares Wins, to completing five marathons in five days, climbing western Europe’s highest mountain, the 16,000ft Mont Blanc, and cycling 1,700 miles across the Continent– all in one month!
Goes without saying that Ashley is super-fit, yet it’s not the desire for iron man looks and power that drives him on. It’s the memory of his late daughter and wanting to make her forever proud of her father.
All the challenges and targets – in fact pretty much everything that Ashley does in his life every day – are for Azaylia, who died aged just eight months from a rare form of leukaemia in 2021, and for children like her. During Azaylia’s short life, Ashley and his partner Safiyya Vorajee raised more than £1.5million for specialist treatment in Singapore. After she passed away, Ashley set up the Azaylia Foundation as a tribute to his daughter and which aims to raise awareness, action and money to fight child cancer.
Ashley said: “We are committed to advancing early diagnosis and new treatment availability in the UK, while at the same time supporting children fighting cancer by helping them access treatment not covered by the NHS. We want to change a system that considers childhood cancer to be rare, and as a result, has been underfunding childhood cancer for too long. For under 15-year-olds, there are five new cases diagnosed every day, and four deaths a week. That does not feel rare, not to us, not to the families impacted, and not to the communities around them. Yet childhood cancer receives less than three per cent of cancer funding because institutionally, it is still considered to be rare.”
Ashley, 32, is a former footballer who played for Coventry City, Luton Town, Oxford United, and Mansfield Town before injury forced him into an early career change. As an MTV reality personality, he starred in Ex on the Beach and has appeared on The Challenge game show and BBC’s Go Hard or Go Home. He has modelled for clothing brands and has a hit podcast Fierce Minds, Kind Heart.
Besides preparing for the Yukon 1000, Ashley has also been penning his first book, fittingly entitled Strong, which is published this month. He describes the book as a Beauty and the Beast memoir, charting the story of Azaylia from her birth, through her fight for life and his own struggles since her passing. Struggles which he revealed led him at one point to contemplate suicide.
While Strong is a moving tribute to his daughter, it also throws into focus the practical and positive mindset that Ashley now embodies, tying his emotional and physical grief into his extreme challenges in order to provide inspiration and comfort to others struggling with loss and other mental health challenges. Ashley said: “The time with Azaylia was the hardest time of my life, but it was also the most beautiful. She allowed me to be the best of me and I hope the book does her justice.”
With his footballing background, Ashley says his fitness had always been about speed and power first and foremost. “I’d never been into endurance,” he said. “I didn’t like doing that kind of thing. But being at Birmingham Children’s Hospital with Azaylia the only break I got was an hour or so, so I spent that time by going for a run round the city to clear my head. When I lost her, I had to write a eulogy and said that while we had been confined to a hospital room, now I wanted to take her around the world and raise awareness of child cancer in as many places as I could.”
The Yukon 1000 more than fulfils Ashley’s pledge – and he’s under no illusion how tough it will be after completing a hard 24-hour, preparation event. “I’m aiming to paddle for 18 hours a day,” he said. “It is really dangerous as I am totally on my own, totally unsupported. If I am in grizzly bear territory, that’s it! I am mentally preparing myself for the fact that I may not be coming back. I want to show just how much my daughter and the cause of helping children with cancer means to me.”
Ashley’s commitment has seen the Foundation launch the ground-breaking Azaylia Childhood Cancer PhD Fund which aims to help create the next generation of medical leaders in childhood cancer by offering fully-funded PhDs in paediatric oncology in partnership with leading UK universities and hospitals. The Foundation has already committed nearly £300,000 to co-fund the first two PhD candidates through a partnership with the University of Birmingham and Birmingham Children’s Hospital, with an immediate ambition to help fund up to 10 PhDs across the country within two years.
Ashley said: “Birmingham Children’s Hospital was like a second home through that time with Azaylia. The wonderful nurses and staff were incredible and while we can never thank them enough, we can try to give as much back as possible.”
As we said earlier, everything Ashley does is driven and influenced by the love for his daughter, including his TV work. He explained: “There are a lot of things happening for me this year which I can’t talk about right now, but I only do things that fit in with my purpose in life. If it doesn’t fit, I turn it down.”
Even Ashley’s striking long beard is down to Azayliah. “When we were in hospital, I grew it and as it got longer Azayliah would touch it, grab it and even rub it with her little feet. I wanted to keep my beard because she touched these very hairs on my face. I don’t trim it and I don’t shape it.”