My tumour was in my shin bone (my tibia) and I first noticed something was wrong when I started to get really bad pains in my shin. It was March/April and I was rehearsing for my first professional dance contract for the Summer Season in Blackpool.
I have danced all my life, so aches and pains were pretty normal for me, however I knew this was something very different.
I can’t fully remember what it felt like, but it was the worst pain I had ever felt. It was like when you bang your shin but more painful and constant, it kept me up at night. Initially it was just every now and then, but it got to the point where I was getting horrible shooting pains even when I was relaxed. I went to my physio who said it was possibly a stress fracture (I had been doing a LOT of tap and Irish dancing, which are especially hard on your shins). I went for a lot of acupuncture at that time and the therapist thought I maybe had a trapped nerve. After over a month of pain that was getting worse and more frequent, my physio told me there was heat coming from my shin and he wanted me to go for an X-ray as soon as possible as he thought something might be growing in there. It never crossed my mind what it really was, and still didn’t for a while after that.
I had an X-ray the following day at my local hospital and had to wait there for the results. A doctor spoke to me and said there was something showing up on my tibia, but that it was probably just an infection. I told him I was due to start my summer shows that very week, so needed someone to urgently tell me how to make it better. By coincidence there was a specialist doctor on the department that day, I was told to wait and speak to him as he would be able to advise me further.
For what felt like an eternity, my dad and I waited until the specialist had looked at my scan. He told me there was something growing in my shin bone and I wasn’t allowed to weight-bare until we found out what it was (he then physically handed me a pair of crutches!) I replied saying, “Sorry I can’t take those, I’m in a show that starts this week.” He replied, “I’m sorry, you are not. There is something pushing on your bone from the inside, if you put weight on that leg your bone could break.”
I was heartbroken, my first professional dance job and the hospital were telling me I wasn’t allowed to do it!
I was then sent for a chest X-ray, which completely baffled me, it was my leg that was hurting not my chest? Still at this point I had absolutely no idea why; the C word had never been mentioned or even crossed my mind.
The chest X-ray was normal but after an MRI scan I was referred to the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Birmingham to see a consultant there. He said from the MRI scan it looked like I had a bone infection as whatever it was, was encased inside the bone. His exact words were “I would tell you if I thought you had cancer.” That was the first time the word was used. I don’t know if it was us being naïve, but it had honestly never come into my mind.
I didn’t even know you could get cancer in your leg.
I was told I’d have a biopsy to fully make sure his assumptions were correct; thank goodness I had the biopsy. I had this exactly a week later in Birmingham and a full body bone scan. I was feeling confident that it would be something a few antibiotics would sort out and I would be dancing again in a few weeks.
The week after my biopsy the hospital rang my mum (to this day, I don’t know why it was her they phoned and not me, but I am thankful for the way I found out).
My mum came into the kitchen where I was, she held my hand and told me they had got it wrong. It was bone cancer.
I honestly couldn’t believe it, the consultant was confident it wasn’t that! Mum told me they were referring me to The Christie in Manchester for chemotherapy and then an operation to take the tumour out. At the time I couldn’t understand why they didn’t want to take the tumour out first.
My initial fear was ‘my hair is going to fall out!’ Thinking back this embarrasses me to think that’s what I thought of first, not ‘what’s going to happen to my leg?’ I think when you hear ‘chemo’ you just automatically think of hair loss. In the coming weeks things were really put into perspective; I would learn that hair REALLY wasn’t the most important thing, getting better was!
My first appointment at The Christie was in July, where we met my consultant Dr McCabe. I’ve never been so nervous in my life and I remember it so well. My mum and dad were both with me and Dr McCabe and his secretary. He explained to me that I had osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer more common in teenagers and young adults. I never dwelled upon HOW it had happened, I just wanted to know how we could fix it. Dr McCabe told me that I was lucky the cancer hadn’t spread anywhere else and that this was maybe because the tumour was encased inside my shin bone, which was also the reason why it was causing me so much pain. It was growing outwards causing my bone to expand from the inside. He also told me that because it was in the middle of my shin, away from any joints, it would be easier to operate on. These positives did put my mind at ease slightly. I was lucky really, had it not been in my leg and I hadn’t danced so much on it I might not have noticed it as early as I did!
He went on to explain how I would have 2 cycles of 3 different chemotherapy drugs (over the course of 10 weeks) followed by an operation in Birmingham to remove the tumour, and then a further 4 cycles of chemotherapy (for 19 weeks). This last part we were not expecting; why did I have to have further chemo if they were taking it out? My mum broke down at this point, this was one of the only times she got upset in front of me and then it hit me how real it was. The whole thing was like an outer body experience, I realised how serious and how poorly I was going to be. I would be spending a lot of time in hospital over the next 9 months. The reason for so much chemotherapy is to see how much of the tumour they could kill before taking it out, and then the chemotherapy after the operation was to get rid of any other cancerous cells that may be floating around (just in case basically!). We were all in a bit of a hazy blur but we were given a plan of action; I was told what weeks I would be in hospital and what kind of side effects I was to expect etc.
Before I left the room, Dr McCabe said words that stuck with me through my time there, ‘this is treatable AND curable!’ I had to hold on to that.
Fast forward a couple of weeks and I was in for my first round of treatment. Having got over the initial shock, I knew I had to just get on with it. My whole family are all very positive people, especially my Mum. She is an extremely strong woman and with her help and attitude I knew I could get through this and I was EXTREMELY determined. Not once during my treatment did I ever lose sight of the fact that I would get better and I WOULD be back dancing again and doing what I love, and she never let me doubt it either!
As well as my mum and the rest of my family, I have the most supportive friends in the world. They made my entire time at The Christie as enjoyable as possible, sending me in with boxes of goodies; magazines, colouring books, letters, pictures, puzzles and even funny video messages! Each cycle of chemotherapy I got a different themed box that really helped keep a smile on my face through the hard times and would continue to keep my spirits high. I also had lots of amazing friends that came to visit me when I was feeling up to it, I’m very lucky!
My first round of chemotherapy hit me quite hard; something poisonous entering your body in an attempt to kill everything that’s growing, it’s bound to!
I had a line fitted just above my chest (where they would hook the medication into me) and this took some getting used to. Although I did experience some sickness from the chemo, for me that wasn’t the main side effect. I had a very sore mouth and I got something called Mucositis quite often, which made it quite difficult to eat (an issue as I never once lost my appetite!)
Each cycle this would get worse as my mouth wouldn’t have time to heal in between and I ended up with next to no skin in my mouth and throat.
All the while on treatment I still wasn’t allowed to put any weight on my right leg so I had to move around with my crutches (a difficult task when I was hooked up to a drip machine!) My mum helped me every step of the way and we tried to have fun with it. After my first week of chemo I cut my hair shorter as the doctor’s told me it would start to fall out soon - I had very thick, long hair so there was a lot to come out! Sure enough after a week or so it was all over my pillows, so we decided to just cut it all off completely. This was hard for me at first, I had always had so much hair so it was a big adjustment, but you soon realise that it’s not important at all! Being in the age group I was, I was eligible for a free real-hair wig which was absolutely amazing, it lifted my spirits when I went to the salon to choose it.
Apart from when I felt really poorly, my mum and I actually had fun together in hospital. We had to make light of the situation and we always found the positives in everything. The Young Oncology Unit at The Christie was fantastic, all the nurses were so caring and went above and beyond to make sure I was comfortable on the ward. I also had a social worker in the hospital, James, who was lovely and he helped my mum and I with everything. We shared a common interest in acting and musicals so we always had lots to talk about.
My mum was able to stay overnight in a special area for parents and family, there were recreational areas of the ward to watch television and play games etc and there was a music room. I spent a lot of time in here playing the piano, sometimes with the volunteers and other patients. Here is where I met another music friend, Abe. He was going through the same treatment as me for bone cancer and we started around a similar time. Unfortunately, Abe had to have his leg amputated, but that didn’t dampen his spirits or stop him from playing the drums! I remember jamming in the music room made me feel normal, like nothing else was happening. I made other friends on the ward, a girl called Sarah who was hilarious, and a boy called Mahesh. My mum and Mahesh’s mum became very close during our time there, I think it was really important that they had each other for support. They both understood what the other was going through, Rita was a little angel in disguise. Mahesh and I enjoyed our chats and we would try to cheer the other up if one of us wasn’t feeling good.
A few months in I had nearly finished my second cycle of chemotherapy and I was preparing for my operation in October. I had become quite poorly with my mouth and struggled with low blood count and platelets, but the doctor’s reassured me that this was a good sign. They said ‘the chemotherapy is working as it is attacking your cells’, this kept me focussed. When I felt poorly, I knew it was working! Another thing that kept me through was Disney inspirational quotes. My whole family are massive Disney fans and reading these motivational quotes really helped me to keep positive. My favourites; ‘If you can dream it, you can do it’, ‘It’s kind of fun to do the impossible’, ‘You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you look’.
My operation in Birmingham was the work of genius! I had 3 options at my pre-op consultation; amputation of the leg, replacing my bone with metal which in years would fail and lead to amputation, or ‘a mid-tibial excision, extra corporeal irradiation and reimplantation with fibula graft’… I had absolutely no idea what the last one was, but I knew I wanted that option! Professor Grimer, my consultant/surgeon, was an absolute legend. Everything he said I trusted and I felt so safe and in good hands. He assured me that although we chose the more complicated option, it was the one with the better potential outcome. He showed me the X-ray of a young footballer for who he had performed this operation, who had gone on to play football again and this really inspired me. Professor Grimer said he would aim to get me back on my feet and doing what I love, and I knew that this was definitely going to be the case!
Effectively what happened was; they took out the middle of my tibia and took it to another hospital whilst I was asleep. Crazy. Here they took out the tumour from inside the section of bone, blasted it with radiation (so effectively the bone was dead), brought it back to me and reinserted it with a section of my fibula bone inside. The fibula acted as a piece of live bone to encourage the dead tibia to grow strong again. This was then pinned upright with a metal rod and screws. Mind-blowing! I now have a floating fibula, which apparently you don’t really need unless you’re a racehorse! When I came round from my surgery I apparently called my anaesthetist a Smurf, which isn’t a proud moment but made them laugh nonetheless! My sister, Sophie, drove me home from Birmingham after my operation. She had been in the hospital with me the whole week and was my rock. Our favourite band is McFly, and on the way home the song ‘I’ll Be Ok’ came on shuffle. The lyrics couldn’t have been more fitting;
‘When you're down and lost
And you need a helping hand
When you're down and lost
Along the way
Oh, just tell yourself, I'll, I'll be ok.’
It was the perfect song and it’s now been added to our endless list of songs that make us think of each other. I couldn’t have got through any of the hard times without Sophie and my other sister, Phoebe, and my special brother, Lucien.
I was feeling extremely lucky at this point in my journey, I was able to keep my leg and although I knew it would be a very long time before it would heal, I knew I was one step closer to being me again. I later found out that the tumour they took out was 99% dead! This meant that the chemotherapy had really worked, and it made it worth being so poorly for.
My next cycles of chemotherapy were hard. I was struggling to walk with my crutches as my energy levels were so low, my plaster cast was uncomfortable, and I had also put on quite a lot of weight from steroids and the lack of movement (and lots of eating!) I still however tried to make the most of my time on the ward; doing arts and crafts and quizzes with the volunteers, watching boxsets with my mum, having massages by the alternative therapists etc. I knew I was really poorly though when David Beckham was on the ward and I couldn’t even get out of bed to see him - a great life regret! I managed to get out of hospital on Christmas Eve and spend Christmas Day at home with my family, which was amazing! I was the last person on the ward and the first person back in on Boxing Day, but my mum and I definitely made the most of it.
The New Year came and I had two cycles of chemo left. My friends kept sending me boxes of gifts etc and we created the new hashtags #NearlyMarch and #Spring which was when I would finish my treatment. I did have a little scare in February as my other leg started to hurt quite a lot; at this point I had put on four stone and the good leg was having to carry me around! I had it checked as the doctors were obviously worried but luckily it wasn’t anything sinister. I had something called bone infarction which could have been caused by the extra pressure my leg was under.
My last day at The Christie was really emotional, I was overwhelmed with the fact that I was going home to start my journey of getting back to normal. It felt weird to not be seeing the amazing nurses and doctors and to leave the patients and volunteers, it was a really big adjustment for me after spending so much time there, it was bittersweet. My friend Abe who was in hospital the same time as me was also leaving on the same day, we’d started and finished the journey together! The 21st March 2013, it was finally spring.
A month later my scans were clear and I was sent to Birmingham for a week of intense physiotherapy. Learning to walk again after a year was going to be hard, and it took so much longer than a week! My latest plaster cast was taken off and I was given a removable Spaceboot- freedom at last for my leg! However, because the chemotherapy had been killing everything that was growing, my bone had not been healing or fusing together properly and it continued to stay in a similar state for the next few months. I went for physiotherapy in Blackpool 4 times a week every week for the next year and a half.
I had been referred to The Royal Liverpool University Hospital that summer where I was told I may end up needing another operation to put an outer metal frame around my leg, to help the bones fuse together quicker. This would have been another setback for me but I was trying to think positive. I continued with physio and tried to get my leg as strong as possible. I was now walking (limping) a little without my crutches, but still couldn’t take the spaceboot off.
A milestone for me was in October of that year I managed to take part in a small concert. I still couldn’t walk very well but managed to stand on stage with my spaceboot on and sing; I was beginning to feel like myself again (with a new Afro hairstyle!)
Towards the end of that year Dr Narayan from Liverpool Hospital said he actually wanted to hold off on the operation as my bones were showing small signs of fusing and healing. I had everything crossed. Fast forward to February 2014 (Valentine’s Day) I went for an appointment and he told me it was healed sufficiently. I could take off the spaceboot. I was allowed to drive again. It was one of the best moments and I felt so blessed! I knew I would have to keep up physio and that it would still be a while until I was back dancing again. But for now, it was healed!
My journey back to the stage had begun and my next big milestone was performing in Sister Act the Musical in May 2014. I was now four stone lighter as I had been working so hard and my leg was getting stronger. There wasn’t too much dancing in this show, which was good for me as I was still limping a little, but it felt amazing to be back on a big stage. My friends from The Christie, Mahesh and his mum Rita, even came to watch!
I continued going for check-ups at The Christie and was saddened on one occasion to hear that my friend, Abe, was poorly again. He had already been through so much and I thought it so unfair that he had to go through it all again. Abe unfortunately died early in the year in 2015. It’s difficult to think that two people who went through such a similar journey could end up with different outcomes, the guilt hit me hard at some points and I was heartbroken for his family. They always did so much for Bone Cancer Research Trust and they were lovely people and incredibly brave. I think about him often and hope he’s jamming away somewhere.
Further into 2015, my leg was getting a lot stronger and you could now see a considerable difference in my X-rays from the one just after my operation.
I was lucky enough that year to be in two big musicals, Hairspray and Legally Blonde. These are quite big dance shows and I felt incredibly lucky to be doing them! I started dancing again professionally and that summer I also did the Manchester to Blackpool bike ride to raise money for The Christie.
At my check-ups my consultants were always wanting to see my latest dancing videos and see what I had been up to. I’m also a skier and I started going skiing again in 2017, which felt AMAZING. Although my oncologist said I have to be careful, he also said I need to live my life! (My new moto was ‘You Only Live Once’!) They were always so surprised and amazed at how much I’d been able to do physically after what I went through.
In April 2018, I had a little setback. I went for my routine scan, exactly 5 years after finishing treatment, and something came up on my chest X-ray. I had a small mass showing what they suspected to be a secondary tumour from the osteosarcoma. It was unexpected as I had been in remission for 5 years and was so used to going for my check-ups and just having a catch up with my consultant.
I admit that I was very scared at this point and worried I would have to go through treatment again.
Further scans showed that it was a tumour but the good news was that I was clear everywhere else. This meant that the plan was simply to operate and remove the tumour, I wouldn’t need any chemotherapy. I had to get my mindset back in the zone of ‘I will get through this!’ With the support from my family and friends once again, and the knowledge that I had got through much worse than this before, I knew this would be easy in comparison to last time. I was lucky, they spotted it early and it was only one site.
In the June I had my surgery where they removed the tumour and took out the lower section of my lung. Luckily, I was quite fit beforehand and so it only took me a few weeks to recover physically. I was back dancing 4 weeks later. I also performed in a play in the middle of August with my sister, Sophie, and a few of our friends. Be My Baby is a story that is very special to us, it’s all about unmarried pregnant girls in the 1960s and the stigma they were faced with. I can’t imagine my life without performing, and I found that you really appreciate things so much more after periods of hardship.
Last year in 2019 I went on to play the lead role in 42nd Street, a musical with a LOT of tap dancing in it. Tap was always my favourite style of dance as a child, and I never truly knew during my time in hospital whether I’d be able to continue with it the same (it can be very harsh and high impact on your legs). But I did it, and to this day it’s one of my proudest moments on stage. I had my two sisters by my side and it’s hard to think of a time I’ve been happier to be honest. My consultant was fascinated by my video footage and I love to be able to show him what I can do now, he helped me get back there! I particularly love how in the picture it looks like I’m smiling at my leg!
Along with my best friend, Lisa, I took on the 2000 Burpees in November Challenge, for the Bone Cancer Research Trust. I want to help raise money for this AMAZING cause, and in turn help more people to maybe one day do a burpee again, or one day play football again, or even one day tap dance again! I am one of the lucky ones and I am so grateful every single day. We have been doing the burpees all around Blackpool and have really enjoyed it!
I wore my t-shirt to my last check-up at The Christie and told my oncologist about the burpee challenge. He is always so proud and amazed by what I can do now, things that even they didn’t know would be possible, and it’s because of him and my surgeon that I am able to. I feel truly blessed to have had such an amazing team!
I will say this in conclusion to my story; with a positive mental attitude you can achieve things you thought you never could. I would not be where I am without the support from my loved ones and my amazing family who kept me going every step of the way. I can’t ever thank them enough, I am a stronger person because of them.
I am currently rehearsing for Elf the Musical which I will be performing next month and I can’t wait. If my experience has taught me anything it is to not take life for granted. Live every day and appreciate those around you. More importantly, never let anyone tell you you can’t do something.
If you put your mind to it you can do anything. Like Walt Disney says ‘All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.’