A schoolgirl whose cancer was mistaken for exhaustion caused by exam stress has documented her year-long battle with the illness via a survival scrapbook.
Ella Richards, 16, from Henley-in-Arden, Warwickshire, had been counting down the days until her family jetted to Kalamata, in southern Greece, for a holiday at the end of her first GCSE year in July 2019.
But halfway through the trip, she started to feel poorly and was too tired to join in with her brother Charlie, 15, and sister Scarlet, 12.
Ella’s parents Melanie, 49, a teaching assistant, and Gavin, 52, a graphic designer, put her fatigue down to stress, following a hectic term of mock exams and coursework.
But, after returning from their holiday Ella was hospitalised with a bout of pneumonia and while there, her swollen lymph nodes led to further investigations.
Following tests and examinations, the family were shocked to learn that the teenager had high grade non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma – an aggressive form of cancer in the lymphatic system.
“I never for a second thought it was going to be anything as serious as cancer,” Ella says.
“I’d only known of old people or people in films getting cancer, not girls like me – still at school.”
“The doctor asked to speak to my mum outside and at first I wasn’t worried, as he’d done that a few times since I’d been admitted,” she recalled.
“But when they didn’t come back in five minutes I started to get really worried.
“It felt like they’d been gone hours but it was probably more like 20 minutes.
“When the doctor came back in, I could tell my mum was upset and he was talking about my lymph nodes making bad cells, but I got a bit confused.
“That’s when he told me it was cancer. I felt terrified. All I could think was, ‘Oh my god, what if I die?’”
Starting chemotherapy on 31 October, Ella had five doses administered intravenously over a week, before having two weeks off, then a week on, for 18 weeks.
“Nothing can prepare you for chemo,” she says.
“It’s very different to how you see it on telly – it’s not all just being sick in bowls non-stop.
“You’re nauseous and tired, but what was worse for me was losing my hair.
“I took such pride in my hair – it was down to my waist – but I knew I wanted to take back some control so decided to cut it off myself, before it fell out on its own.”
The trauma of losing her hair was eased slightly by the gift of a £500 voucher for the Bullring shopping centre in Birmingham from the charity Molly Olly’s Wishes, which supports children with terminal or life-limiting illnesses.
“My mum had contacted the charity while I was in hospital,” Ella explains.
“I’ve always loved shopping and I wanted to buy some things which could cover up the fact I’d lost my hair.
“Amongst other things, I bought fake eyelashes and eyebrow treatments.”
Finally finishing her chemotherapy in March, Ella had a follow-up scan at Warwick Hospital and the results revealed her cancer had gone.
But sadly Ella is not out of the woods yet.
Having developed another nasty cough at the start of June, Ella returned to hospital for examination, which revealed she had swollen lymph nodes in her neck.
She was referred for a biopsy on 23 June and doctors shared the concerning news that the cancer was back.
“It was the worst news I’ve ever had,” she said. “For the second time in less than a year I was being told I had cancer.
“It was like waking up from a bad dream and being relieved it’s all over – only to be told the nightmare is real.”
This time, her medical team are tackling the cancer with targeted therapy, rather than with chemotherapy.
Taking a low-dose of cancer-fighting drugs every day, she is expected to continue with this regime for a year.
Ella is relieved that there is little chance of her again losing her hair, which is now an inch long. “The doctors have told me that if I stick with this treatment there’s an 80% chance of full remission,” she said.
Ella has been documenting her cancer journey via a personal scrapbook, which was an idea suggested to her by a nurse just after she received her cancer diagnosis.
“A nurse suggested I start a project to take my mind off everything and, as I’d always enjoyed art at school, a scrapbook sort of made sense.
“My dad got me all the materials and brought them in – a big blank book, felt tips and different coloured card.
“I set about filling it in, from my holiday in Greece to my diagnosis, then built on it from there.”
“Mum printed off photos for me and brought in old prescription boxes and things like that.
And, as Ella kept bravely documenting her experience, her scrapbook became more than just a distraction.
“The scrapbook helped me in more ways than I could have imagined,” Ella said.
She continued: “If I was having a bad day, like before cutting off my hair, I could flick through everything I’d been through and see how far I’ve come.
“Even now, it’s great to see how much I’ve achieved,” she adds.
“Now, when I flick through my scrapbook – all 20 pages of it – I know that I can take whatever the world throws at me.”
Further information about Molly Olly’s Wishes or how to donate can be found at: www.mollyolly.co.uk
Additional reporting PA Real Life.