Meet The MMA Fighter Returning To The Octagon After Beating Stage Three Cancer
"Show me the person, I'll show you the fighter. Show me the fighter and I'll show you the person" - Aaron Aby had that very mantra instilled in him from his dad when he was very young and has used it in all of the challenges life has thrown at him.
Told he wouldn't live past 16 after being born with cystic fibrosis, the professional MMA fighter was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2017 - fighting his last bout against Danny Missin without even knowing he had the disease.
He even delayed his chemotherapy as he and his partner Hayley were trying to have a baby through IVF, but then had to have six lots of the treatment, as well as two surgeries to remove both the testicle and lymph mass in his stomach.
Because of his cystic fibrosis, a genetic, inherited disease that affects the lung and the digestive system and makes it hard to breathe and to digest food and enzymes, the 29-year old had a first of its kind surgery in the UK where he wasn't able to have general anesthetic.
He wasn't supposed to be back training again until February 2020 and he's lost 15 per cent lung function as a result of the chemotherapy, but after a long and arduous journey, Aby returns to the Octagon this weekend.
It's been an emotional journey to get back. It's been tough, it's taken dedication and a strong team behind me but I never doubted for one second I wouldn't do it! Nobody can put limitations on you! Ever! #fightingtobreathe pic.twitter.com/ScvQTcoZYL
- aaron aby (@aaronabymma) December 6, 2019
He told SPORTbible: "When you get told you have cancer it's one of the hardest things to deal with but what I'd been through in the past helped prepare me for it. I'd been beating cystic fibrosis and now I was going to beat cancer.
"I went some nights without sleep because of the pain, I had no sleep for two weeks and my partner would stay up with me all night and then go to work as a primary school teacher in the day. She wouldn't complain or take a day off.
"I basically felt like I was dying without dying and it was a mental fight that I had to push through.
"It hit my family hard because my nan, at the time she was going through cancer and only had months to live. One of the hardest things about the whole thing was having to tell my Mum because of what she was going through at the time with her mum.
"I delayed that for a while and then eventually I obviously had to tell everyone. My family were a little bit prepared because of what we had with the cystic fibrosis but also it was tough on them as it was for me.
"I look at my dad now and I feel like I've aged him about 20 years; he was struggling and he lost a lot of weight."
Undeniably, Aby's long-standing fight with cystic fibrosis has him up on points. His parents were told not to exercise him because his lungs wouldn't be able to cope.
He had to have tablets before meals and do physio, but he soon went against the grain - stopping his prescribed medication and using training, exercise and healthy eating to keep fighting the good fight.
The story of how Aby came to find out he had cancer is a strange one. He fought his last fight completely unaware that he had the disease, with the first doctor he visited quizzing him on his sexual activity as he believed it was an infection.
"My last fight was in September 2017 and I'd already been to the doctors in June that year because I'd been having pain. The first time, he actually asked had I had any strange sex and I was like 'No!'. He said he thought it was an infection but I've been with my girlfriend Hayley for 15 years so I knew it wasn't.
"He gave me some tablets and didn't test me, told me, 'Take these and if it doesn't go away, come back'.
"I didn't take the tablets because I knew it wasn't an infection from strange sex and then I went back two weeks later because the pain was getting worse. The doctor there tested me for an infection and he said, 'It's not, I'll book you for a scan'.
"All this was going on while I was training for a fight on ACB with Danny Missin and on the week of the fight, the pain was getting worse and went to my back. I thought maybe it was nerves because it was a big rematch on a big show and I'd lost to him before.
"The fight went out the way and went back to the doctors, had the scan and they said it was cancer. So I actually had my last fight with cancer."
Getting a dog and going for walks helped him find his positive and when he became cancer-free, he gradually built himself up to the point where he feels like he's never been away.
"It just felt normal. I started with like physio and strengthening everything because obviously I still had the big stomach scar and that was week. I'd do physio with my physio Vickie twice a week and at first she'd just come to the house because she wouldn't let me go the gym in case I went too fast, too soon.
"I started with that then started to get one-to-one sessions, just building up that way. As soon as I started getting back in the gym doing bits it felt like I'd never been away.
"I went down to 49kg. I fight at 56kg flyweight and I'm still not that weight now so I'm putting the weight on. I felt light but other than I feel like I've never been gone.
"I'm training twice a day four days a week and once a day two days a week. I've still kept up my privates because they benefitted me a lot and I do like the pro classes in the morning as well - sometimes I do like a private and then the pro class.
"I do strength and conditioning twice a week and as well when I coach a at night in Wrexham I'll jump in for 45 minutes with the guys there."
He's had to wait longer than he wanted for his comeback fight after opponent Daryl Grant pulled out in the week leading up to the fight in October, but he will do what he loves again this Saturday in the rearranged bout against the same fighter.
"I've had almost 18 months off and I've come back and I'm just as good," Aby stated.
"If I miss a day to do something else then that's fine. I hope that I've learned there is a bit more to life than the fighting, now it's like an enjoyable thing.
"I was a little worried on how it [losing lung function] would affect my performance because I've always been a high-pressure fighter and someone who looks to push the pace.
"Before we took the fight we did sparring rounds just to test where I was at and because everything was going well we thought, 'Let's go for it'.
"I think I will have to be a bit smarter and adapt my style a little bit but it's in me to go forward. If I'm standing in front of someone and nothing's happening, it's in me to make something happen - that's always been one of my strengths."
There's never any good timing for anyone to be told they have cancer but the timing of Aby's gut-wrenching news could not have been worse as he and his partner were trying for a baby - something he wanted so desperately that he was willing to delay his chemotherapy.
He explained: "With cystic fibrosis, you can't have a baby naturally because the tubes are blocked. You've got sperm but you have to go through IVF. We'd started doing that process in 2016 but then I got ill and so we thought we'd delay it a bit.
"The chemotherapy obviously affects your sperm and I wanted to be a dad. I did an interview in 2016 and they said, 'What's more important to you than fighting?' and I said, 'Being a dad' and I think I jinxed myself!"
"It was difficult and almost like stupid in a way because I felt like I was killing my kid even though I didn't have one. We were going through the IVF stages but the next stage was for them to take sperm from me and I felt like I took that away from my partner a little bit at the time.
"As far as delaying the chemo, it got to a point where she was like, 'You're going to get treatment now'.
Aby required four rounds of chemotherapy - five days on, two weeks and two days off every three weeks, with 16 hours of the chemo followed by eight hours off in the hospital.
All was going well ahead of his operation to remove his testicle and lymph mass in his stomach until he was informed the cancer had returned and he needed two lots of stronger chemotherapy (20 hours on and four off) - which caused him to struggle to get up and do basic tasks like walking, getting up the stairs and making his own food.
It was only then that the doctor could remove both of his testicles but his cystic fibrosis meant he could not have general anesthetic, leading to a first of its kind operation at Broadgreen Hospital in Liverpool.
"When you have anesthetic they put your lungs to sleep so that's a danger with cystic fibrosis and because there was only one surgeon in the UK who could remove the lymph mass, they wanted to get the primary tumor out as soon as possible.
"They didn't want to give my anesthetic too close together so I had to do it without and was awake while they were removing my testicle.
"It was pain but I had a little bit of a numbing one from the spine below so I was talking to them and they showed me it when they took it out. I was like, 'Can we have a selfie, how many people have done this?!'.
"I was the first in the UK to ever have that type of surgery without anesthetic."
Then, after being given the wrong results from his second surgery by accident and causing he and his family to have their heads down and think the end was near, the second, life-saving surgery to remove the lymph mass took place at Birmingham's Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
With absolutely no margin for error, only one doctor was willing to operate. But Aby received assurances from the surgeon in the form of a football analogy and would eventually get the all-clear.
"They needed to find a surgeon who would do the surgery and only one guy in the UK would do it so I just had to wait and get a date with him.
"He did the operation in Birmingham and said it was a life or death operation. I don't think they had anyone with cystic fibrosis who got hit in the lungs by the chemotherapy that bad but the mass in my stomach was by the two major arteries that take blood to and from the heart.
"The risk was that if he touches one, game over. They had to get a highly-skilled surgeon. I liked him because when I went to see him he said, 'Listen I'm the best at this job, I'm the only one that can do it'.
"He said, 'Who do you support?' and I told him Liverpool. He said, 'Well you'd want Jurgen Klopp managing your team, not Doncaster Rovers' manager. I'm the head of this type of surgery and I'm going to give you the best chance'.
"After the operation the surgeon said it was successful and he was 99 per cent he had removed everything. We did some tests on the blood and there was no cancer, that was a massive relief for me because I felt the pressure on my family.
"I didn't ring the bell that they give you to ring but I was just too happy and wanted to get the hell out of there."
There were times where Aby had lost hope and thought someone was just knocking him down. Becoming a dad was taken away from him and so too was his training, something he had done for the best part of 10 years.
The Team is coming @ukfcmma Dec 7th! Thanks for the support :heart: #fightingtobreathe pic.twitter.com/TbOE4DCA9b
- aaron aby (@aaronabymma) November 27, 2019
With a February timeline for a return to training given by the surgeon, his coaches thought he was coming back too soon - his main coach Jason telling him, "I'd rather you retire" because of the stress he'd caused him.
But Aby could not contain his desire to get back in and do what he loves because it was taken away from him for so long.
"Earlier in my career I'd be like, 'If I lose this fight I'm not going to get into UFC' but now if I Iose I know I'm still doing what I love. It could have been taken away from me but it's more fun now and it's not the be all and end all.
"Don't let me wrong I'm one hundred per cent going in there to win because that's who I am but I won't be thinking about what might happen after. I'm just doing it because I love it."