At first I thought the cancer symptoms were growing pains
Francesca was just 14 when she was diagnosed with leukaemia, after feeling fatigued and having pain in her legs.
I started to get really bad pains in my legs when I was 14 and I initially thought it was growing pains. They got progressively worse to the point where it kept me up at night and hurt too much to go to school some days. I was really pale, had a bad rash and I was really tired.
I’d come home from school and sleep for two and a half hours. Mum sometimes got cross as I would sleep through dinner, but I was in such a deep sleep that I couldn’t wake up.
I went to the GP who thought it might be something to do with my kidneys. He did blood tests and urine tests. I was in so much pain that I went to A&E the next day and they were concerned when they saw the rash. I was given anti-inflammatories and went home to bed.
The hospital couldn’t get hold of my parents, so someone came to our house at half 12 at night. We thought it was really odd, but we went to hospital as instructed. They did more tests, which was horrible as I am really scared of needles.
When I was told I had cancer I was in shock. I thought that only happened to older people and I didn’t think for one second that that’s what it was. It turned out that mum was in such a state that she couldn’t come back in straight away.
I was transferred with my parents to the Teenage Cancer Trust unit at Leeds General Infirmary. I didn’t speak at all to start with. I couldn’t say the word “cancer”. I didn’t want to be on my own for more than ten minutes and I kept breaking down in tears. It was all new and it was hard to adjust.
The second round of chemo was worse. I dropped to under four stone. I had to use a wheelchair or walking stick and needed help getting to the toilet. I was so thin, it hurt me to lie down at night and I couldn’t support myself to stand up. I had a feeding tube and every element of my life was rubbish. I couldn’t see myself getting better.
I remember thinking, “I wake up, I take my medicine, I cry, I go back to sleep.” You lose all your independence. As a teenager, that’s all you want to be – independent.
With cancer, you lose all your independence. As a teenager, that’s all you want to be – independent.
My mum and dad, four siblings and aunt and uncle were amazing throughout the treatment. Being on the unit meant they could all visit at once, and we could order food in and sit around together when I was well enough – so it was like a home away from home.
A lot of people think cancer wards are sad, but the Teenage Cancer Trust one isn’t. There are so many nice things about it. The nurses are the best in the world. They were so caring.
My Youth Support Coordinator, Cat, also introduced me to other young people who were going through similar things. Some even had acute lymphoblastic leukaemia like me, and it helped to see that those further on in the treatment were doing well. We had a common ground and could talk about some of the side effects of the treatment which we didn’t want to discuss with school friends. I couldn’t go to school much during that time, so it was nice to be around other young people.
Even when I was out of hospital, I didn’t want to leave the house as I had lost so much confidence.
During the third round of chemo, I lost my hair again and also my eyelashes and eyebrows. That hit me harder than the first time and I thought: “How am I meant to go to school with no eyelashes or eyebrows?” I felt like I was different from everyone else at school.
Cat referred me to a Look Good Feel Better event. We learnt how to apply different bits of make-up, how to look after our skin, and how to use make-up to enhance your eyes and help you feel more confident.
Being around the other young people on the unit also made me feel more confident about how I looked as well as they weren’t bothered about that type of thing. Instead we would sit around doing normal things like we would do if we weren’t poorly. Spending time with them and my family made me realise that I was still the same person inside.
It’s not been easy. And it got even harder when the pandemic hit. I know young people with cancer have found it really hard during the pandemic – they’ve been isolated, and many have struggled with their mental health. But Teenage Cancer Trust have been here for us throughout – they’ve been a lifeline at the toughest time.
I’m now studying for my A Levels and hoping to start at university this year. I’m looking forward to moving on, knowing I don’t have to be “the girl who had cancer”.