Aaron Aby will never forget the first time he was told he was going to die.
It was during his seventh grade year of school in his native England, when an instructor was teaching the class about biology and he read from a textbook about genetic diseases. The chapter addressed cystic fibrosis — a disease that causes severe damage to the lungs, pancreas, and other organs where cells that produce mucus, sweat, and digestive juices cause those fluids to be sticky and thick rather than thin and slippery. As a result, a person stricken with cystic fibrosis can undergo all sorts of health struggles that can severely affect quality of life, including pulmonary or respiratory issues.
“I remember the teacher saying people with cystic fibrosis have got a life expectancy of 16 [years], and he was reading from the textbook at the time,” Aby recalled when speaking to MMA Fighting. “I remember thinking, ‘No, surely not.’”
Aby was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when he was still a child, and while he underwent special treatment to ensure his body could fight back against the disease, his parents refused to make him feel different than other children.
In fact, Aby never realized the severity of the disease because the treatments just became part of his regular, everyday life growing up.
“Mostly through my early childhood years, I didn’t know any different really,” Aby said. “I thought that everyone was the same as me. I thought everyone had to take medicine when they had food. I thought everyone had to use physio nebulizers every four weeks. I just thought it was normal.
“My parents didn’t treat me any differently or tell me I was different to anyone else.”
But once the teacher read that passage aloud to the class, Aby felt like he just got gut-punched.
While he was aware that he had cystic fibrosis, Aby was never told that he only had a finite number of years to live. His parents refused to accept that their son was living on borrowed time after first learning that he had the disease.
“My mom and dad tell me a story: When I was a kid, they were doing all the tests on me and they figured out what was wrong with me,” Aby said. “They took them in the room and said ‘Your son’s got cystic fibrosis … do you know what that is?’ They said no. The doctors said ‘Here’s a book, go ahead and read it and we’ll book you in for an appointment.’ My mom and dad were driving home, and in the booklet it was talking about life expectancy for 16 years, in and out of hospitals, wouldn’t have kids, wouldn’t get married, wouldn’t need to save for a pension. It was all negative stuff, and obviously, they were hit hard with it.
“They got home and my mom said that my dad took that booklet and just tore it into shreds, put it in the garbage, and said, ‘This isn’t going to be his life.’ I think that was the moment they were going to treat me just like everyone else.”
Once Aby got home from school on the day his teacher basically handed him a death sentence during a routine lecture, he had plenty of questions for his parents.
Needless to say, in turn, his parents had plenty to then say back to his school.
“I remember going home and saying to my parents, why am I going to school?” Aby said. “If I’m expected to live until I’m 16, I want to do other things than go to school and stuff. They basically sat me down and said, ‘Listen, this is the average life expectancy, you’ve been playing sports, looking after yourself. You’re healthy, you’re not in the hospital like some kids, this doesn’t mean this is your reality.’
“I remember they called my school and told them, ‘You can’t be reading that out, because that’s not how it is for Aaron.’”
Advances in medicine, along with better understanding about treating cystic fibrosis, have drastically changed life expectancy for those with the disease. There was a time when children diagnosed with cystic fibrosis would likely never see high-school graduation.
But Aby’s parents never wanted him to feel like he was living on borrowed time, so they put him on a medical regimen to treat the disease and allowed him to participate in sports and other activities discouraged for anybody diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.
While his mother and father weren’t doctors or scientists, Aby later discovered that his parents were way ahead of the curve when it came to treating his disease.
“I have to credit a lot to them,” Aby said. “It’s now recommended for people with cystic fibrosis to do exercise in the hospitals. Cystic fibrosis units have got their own gyms now. Back then, 20 or 30 years ago, it was recommended not to exercise because their lungs couldn’t cope with it. I almost had a head start in that way.”
Despite staying healthy while treating his cystic fibrosis as a kid, Aby remembers when his school decided to put him in a physical education class for disabled students. Much like his parents, he refused to just accept that, so he proceeded to undergo all of the necessary tests and activities to prove he could hang with any of the athletes in his class.
That included a 12-minute run to test his endurance. Aby had the best time in his entire class.
“I was like, ‘There is no way this is happening,’” Aby explained “I would almost use sports growing up to make myself feel normal. If I was beating everyone in cross country or outrunning everyone in the 1,500 meters [race] or beating everyone in football, I was like, ‘I’m healthy. My lungs are healthy. Look at me! I’m going to live as long as everyone else.’ It was almost my way of combating it and fighting it.”
Aby continued excelling at sports so much that he actually began getting recognized for his skills on the football pitch.
By the time he turned 16, Aby received a contract from Wrexham AFC — a team made famous in recent years thanks to a new ownership duo of actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney — and that became his primary focus outside of school.
“Football was my first love really,” Aby said. “I ended up on a part-time contract with Wrexham football club, which was like three days a week in the club, two days a week in college.”
While Aby was studying and playing soccer, his uncle was enthusiastically pursuing his own passion for MMA. That included trips across the pond to the United States, where he trained under famed coach Erik Paulson before returning home again to England.
At the time, Aby’s uncle couldn’t find proper training in his home neighborhood, so he took it upon himself to start teaching classes of his own. And he always had his nephew in mind.
“He actually started teaching a mixed martial arts class with all the proceeds going to cystic fibrosis research,” Aby said.
“So we decided to go train [with him], and it was one night a week at the start, then it was two nights a week. I was a young lad, 16 or 17, playing football part-time and going to college. But then I started training two times a week, and then it became three times a week. Then it was like, can we do something extra? Can we get an amateur fight? It just snowballed from there really.”
Aby continued pursuing soccer and working towards a professional career, but he kept getting drawn back to fighting, which spoke to him on a different level than any other sport he ever played.
“It was hard for me being part-time with a club, and then I ended up in the Welsh Premier League, which is the highest league in Wales,” Aby said. “Training was sometimes on the same nights, and I’d be going to football and I’d be at football just thinking about MMA. The weekends, we’d play games, and sometimes traveling for football was like four hours — and the entire time, I was thinking about MMA.”
ToaAdd to that, Aby felt like the discipline he was gaining from MMA was also helping his battle with cystic fibrosis, thanks to the intense training sessions along with strength and conditioning, as well as the proper nutrition he maintained as a result.
Things finally reached a breaking point where Aby had to decide if his future was going to be in football or fighting.
“I kept playing football up until I went pro,” Aby said. “But then I said I needed to commit to MMA now or I’m going to be average at both.”
He decided to give up football and turn his full focus on fighting.
Between 2013 and 2017, Aby amassed an impressive 10-3 record and started fielding calls about joining a bigger organization, with his hopes set on eventually making it to the UFC.
That’s when the bottom dropped out on him again.
Just as Aby was making waves in his MMA career, life handed him another devastating blow. He began dealing with severe testicular pain that reverberated through his stomach and back. At first, doctors thought he had an infection, but when antibiotics didn’t cause the pain to subside, Aby got an ultrasound that revealed he had Stage 3 testicular cancer.
“It was the hardest thing I had to go through mentally, physically, not just for me, but also for my family and the people around me,” Aby said. “Getting told you have cancer and how it’s spread throughout my body was a really tough thing to go through. I just had go through all the battles that come with it.
“The cancer would go away, [then] it would come back. I had to go through three operations, eight cycles of chemotherapy, which was like 20 hours on, four hours off for cycles of five days. The chemotherapy was destroying my body, something I had always worked hard to look after with my health. So I had to go through the battle of what the chemo was doing to my lung function. I lost a lot of weight. I went down to 49 kg (108 pounds).”
For the second time in his life, Aby was told that he wasn’t going to survive.
The cancer spread to his stomach and the main mass was in a position where surgeons were unwilling to operate due to the location. Doctors told Aby that there was nothing more they could do for him. The cancer had already spread too far.
Thankfully, Aby continued seeking out second opinions until he found a doctor in England who felt confident that he could not only perform the surgery, but safely remove the mass from his stomach without doing further harm to his body.
“I had to rely on this one surgeon to do it, and I was like, what can I do?” Aby said. “What can I do to control this? So I’d go to the gym and get in the rowing machine and get my lungs functioning healthier. Taking care of nutrition so that I’d be healthier for the surgery. Just the little things I could control and help me get through that situation.”
When he was put under anesthesia for the surgery, Aby wasn’t certain if he’d wake up again.
The surgery was ultimately a success, but he still had to undergo another operation to remove a testicle, which was actually done under local anesthetic because there was too much risk to the lungs due to his cystic fibrosis.
He also had to continue undergoing intensive rounds of chemotherapy to beat back the cancer that was trying to take his life away. The recovery from the surgery alone took nine months.
But Aby never stopped fighting, even if he admits there were times when giving up almost felt like sweet relief after all the pain and suffering he had endured.
“I would never quit. I would never be broken,” Aby said. “I almost tried to find hope to hold onto through the dark times, when I couldn’t find any light. I just locked myself in a dark room and I’d cry at times, but then I would start setting goals because I wanted to get back competing. I thought just the hope could help me get through it.
“Because when you’re going through tough times without any hope and support, you haven’t got anything. But there were a lot of different battles along the way. Accepting that I got cancer, fighting the cancer, accepting the chemotherapy, going through the chemotherapy. It was tough. I’m not going to sit here now and tell people it wasn’t. There were times I wanted to give up. I would always find that hope or someone would give me the kick in the ass that I needed at the time.”
It took two years for Aby to finally receive word that his cancer had gone into remission.
Much like his diagnosis with cystic fibrosis, Aby knows cancer was supposed to end him, but he always remembered the lessons his parents taught him as a kid.
“My dad would say, ‘He’s not going to be a damn statistic — he’s different,’” Aby said. “That’s something he would say to me from 6 or 7 years old, and I always remember thinking, I’ll never quit.
“I was the kid growing up and if you said I couldn’t do something, I had to do it. Even playing football — [people said], ‘He won’t be able to do it’ — and I was the captain of the team because I would never quit. I was always leading by example. I always used to say, going through the cancer, this is my reason being here — to get through this cancer and help other people beat it and inspire other people to give them hope.”
As soon as he received a clean bill of health from his doctors, Aby immediately returned to the gym so he could begin getting back in shape to fight again. The COVID pandemic slowed things down for him again, but Aby never stopped pushing to get back in the cage.
On Saturday, Aby competes for the Oktagon MMA flyweight title — a fight that comes barely six years after he was told that his days were numbered. Aby can’t guarantee victory. That’s just not realistic.
But he can promise that he’ll do everything possible to win, and no matter the result, Aby won’t be broken. If cystic fibrosis and cancer couldn’t make him quit, he knows there isn’t a man alive who will do it.
“I feel like I am unbreakable,” Aby said. “I feel like people have always quoted me for how tough I am in my fights, which isn’t always a good thing, but people have always said that about me. I’ll never quit. I may have lost some fights before but I’ve never quit. I’ve never been tapped out. I’ll never be broken. That’s who I am as a person.”
As far as his health goes, Aby maintains constant vigilance on both his cystic fibrosis as well as regular checkups to ensure the cancer hasn’t returned. It’s a daily fight, but one he’s determined to win.
“I still have regular cancer checkups, but at the moment and hopefully forever, cancer free,” Aby said. “Next one’s in December and I’ll keep getting checkups. I’ve been fortunate I’ve got a good team looking after me.
“The story of being the underdog has always resonated with me. I was born to defy and overcome the odds.”
This story originally appeared on MMA fighting