WATCHING on as your child is forced to come to terms with a cancer diagnosis is thankfully beyond the comprehension of most parents.
Joining them on their rigorous journey through life-saving treatment partly against the backdrop of a global pandemic, is simply unprecedented – until now.
Sadly, for 16-year-old Ella Richards, from Henley-in-Arden, it’s all-too real after learning a few months ago that she had Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.
Ella knew she faced a serious health battle ahead just at a time when she should have been working towards her GCSEs and planning for her future.
It was only after several months of poor health, endless doctors’ appointments and hospital tests – that the family learned the extent of this battle – with a high-grade and particularly aggressive cancer which had spread throughout her body.
Ella’s mum Melanie recalls: “We were on holiday and she’d just finished her mock exams and was naturally tired but she started sleeping more and more and the doctors just kept saying it’s anaemia or an infection but I knew it was more than that. I had felt for some time that something was just not right.
“We were back and forwards to the doctors. It was traumatic for the whole family. I felt like I was losing her, every day she was just becoming weaker and weaker, not eating, not being able to sleep at night, constantly up and down.
“When we finally did find out, in October last year, it was absolutely devastating. The minute I walked into Ella’s hospital room I just knew it was bad news and from that point on everything moved so quickly. It was like being on a rollercoaster strapped in and there’s nothing you can do. Our lives turned upside down overnight.
She added: “I couldn’t face telling other people at first because I couldn’t take on their reactions while I was still trying to process it all myself. I felt completely numb, why has this happened to us? But at least we had a diagnosis and a plan and knew what we were dealing with.”
As Ella’s health continued to deteriorate, she lost a third of her body weight and doctors at Birmingham Children’s Hospital were forced to make a life or death decision.
“We were really scared when she was in ICU and the consultant said they would never normally start chemotherapy on a child this poorly, but they didn’t have a choice. I just felt like I was living in an alternative world, like a bubble. You don’t feel like you can relate to anyone or anything in the outside world.”
But Ella pulled through and, during six months of chemotherapy, gradually gained back her strength and determination to fight off the disease.
And it was a present Melanie will never forget when, on Mother’s Day in March this year, Ella completed her sixth -and final round of chemo – and soon returned home – but it was a very different world she was coming back to – a world of shielded isolation for her, her mum and dad and two siblings.
Melanie said: “By the time she was having her last bout of chemo practically everyone on the ward was in isolation due to COVID-19. Children couldn’t visit so it was literally one adult, so my husband, Gavin, and I took it in turns.
“The whole family has had to go into isolation for 12 weeks which gives Ella the best chance to fully recover infection-free. But it also gives us back some precious family time. After everything we’ve been through, I just feel blessed to have them all here at home and healthy.”
The day they had all longed for finally arrived a few weeks ago when Ella was given the all-clear of cancer from her latest scans.
But Coronavirus has meant there is still unfinished business when it comes to officially celebrating the news.
Melanie said: “It took two or three days for the news to sink in. My husband and I were walking around in a daze just pinching ourselves.
“When it came to ringing the bell for end of treatment we weren’t allowed to have anyone join us, so she decided she didn’t want to do it and would rather wait until she could do it as a proper celebration with family and friends. We’d been looking at this bell for six months straight waiting for the day to come when she could finally ring it, so we wanted to do it properly.”
Mum and daughter are thankful to local charity Molly Olly’s Wishes, which supports children with terminal or life-limiting illnesses – and which, they say, played a big part in Ella’s recovery.
The Warwick-based charity gifted Ella a £500 Bullring shopping voucher which the teen spent on. Among other things, fake eyelashes and eyebrow treatments after losing her hair.
Melanie said: “Ella had the gift voucher at the time she was at her lowest and weakest, it gave her such a boost and such a focus. To be honest she would have really struggled without it, it brought light to a dark place.”
The spending sprees also also led to a new-found passion for Pandora jewellery and she now proudly sports a bracelet bearing 10 carefully chosen charms symbolising every step of her cancer journey, including a ghosts charm marking her first chemo session on Halloween and a compass charm symbolising how she ‘got back on track after a chaotic journey.’
Ella explains: “I shaved all my hair off before I started treatment because I didn’t want the stress of it falling out. I wanted it to be on my terms. I chose jewellery as another way to express myself because my hair was a big part of my identity before, so wanted something new to add to my identity. Everything they create is unique and tells a story.
“Also, if I wore a cancer ribbon, everyone would know what had happened to me whereas this is something personal that I only know the meaning behind.”
And, of a scrapbook she’s also compiled as a memory of her journey, Ella said: “In the future when I’m having a bad day I can look back at what I went through and it will give me strength and courage for the future. I thought it would be a good coping mechanism for me to distract myself.”
Like her mum, Ella will never forget the valuable role played by Molly Olly’s Wishes.
She said: “Molly Olly’s helped me through the chaos of my diagnosis and chemotherapy, their gift gave me something to really look forward to. Thanks to the charity I could enjoy going out shopping and forget the worries and stress of cancer and feel like a normal teenager again.”
The Henley High School student, the eldest of three siblings, has also had to come to terms with major disruption to her academic career when COVID-19 enforced the cancellation of her summer exams. But, she admits, even this might offer a silver lining.
“I was very behind with my schoolwork because of all the time I’d had to take out, so to know I wasn’t going to be taking my exams was actually a relief because I still had a lot of revision to do. They are going on predicted grades which works well for me because mine were good.”
So good in fact, the talented teen is now setting her sights on sixth form at Alcester Grammar School before hopefully securing a place at one of the country’s top universities – to realise her new ambition of becoming an oncologist!
She said: “I always wanted to be a doctor but now I’m thinking about working in oncology so I can help people like me. There was a nurse on my ward who actually had cancer when she was my age and she made such a difference to me because she actually understood exactly what I was going through – so I want to be able to do that for other people.”
Further information about Molly Olly’s Wishes or how to donate can be found at: www.mollyolly.co.uk