Learning to live after cancer

Ellie on one of the trust's annual trips
Ellie on one of the trust's annual trips

At just 16 years old, Ellie Thompson has a lot of life ahead of her.

But what isn't obvious, to people who clap eyes on the smiling teenager for the first time, is the battle she’s fought to get to this point. Ellie is a fighter, who at just eight years old had to dig her heels in and wage war against cancer.

Ellie during treatment

Ellie during treatment

“We'd been taking her to the doctors for months, and we kept being told she had a virus,” recalls Ellie's mum Lindsey.

“She was losing weight, her skin was yellow, she had bruising. Finally, in February 2011, we got the news no parents want to hear.”

Ellie was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia and immediately started on an intensive programme of chemotherapy.

Lindsey says: “It was a very strange time; in a way it was a relief to finally have an answer to what was wrong, and then we were immediately launched into a whirlwind of hospital visits. Sheffield Children's Hospital became our second home. 

Ellie with her friend Sara, who she met on one of the trust's trips, and now speaks to every day

Ellie with her friend Sara, who she met on one of the trust's trips, and now speaks to every day

“What amazed me was how Ellie just got on with it, most days with a smile on her face. Of course there were days it was blummin’ awful, she cried through it and so did we, but 90 per cent of the time, she was still our happy eight year old.”

After weeks of treatment - which involved her being put to sleep each week to have chemotherapy injections directly into her spinal canal -.tests showed that Ellie was responding well.

“I remember that,” says Ellie, who lives with her family in Jordanthorpe.

“It wasn’t so bad really, the feeling that came over me as the anaesthetic was administered wasn’t unpleasant, and I remember giggling to my parents each time as I began counting down. They even have a video of it.”

Ellie with her mum Lindsey

Ellie with her mum Lindsey

Lindsey admits it was Ellie’s positive attitude that kept the whole family going.

“I used to dread those injections, she had about 50 in total, but seeing my little girl lying there with a big grin on her face made it so much easier.”

Finally Ellie was given the all clear, which was confirmed again at her six month check-up. She now has routine annual check-ups, and is back to focusing on living life to the full. Though the battle did leave its scars.

Lindsey explains: “Ellie has some issues with her memory and concentration, not that you’d know bearing in mind she’s just come away from her GCSEs with six As and two A*s.

“A lot of people think it comes naturally to her but they don’t realise how hard she has to work. She’s thinking about a career in paediatric oncology.”

Ellie’s confidence was something else that took a hit.ng

Lindsey adds: “Ellie developed separation anxiety after her treatment, and would do very little initially. It was someone on the ward who first mentioned the Ellen MacArthur Trust to us.”

The Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust works with young people aged 8-24 and uses sailing to rebuild confidence and support, empowering and inspiring these young people into re-engaging with education, employment, relationships and society - basically life - after cancer.

“Ellie was invited to Water Park Lakeland Adventure Centre in the Lake District as part of the trust’s Return to Sail programme when she was 12,” Lindsey says.

“Due to her separation anxiety she was reluctant to go, the whole thing just felt very scary to her, and she said she’d only go if we came too, so we hired a caravan nearby and the whole family went along so that we could spend the week 20 minutes away if she needed us.

“Her dad and I got a phone call from her that first night to tell us what a brilliant time she was having. She was already full of stories and adventures, and the joy in her voice was brilliant to hear.”

Ellie made great friends on this trip, friends she has to this day – including one she speaks with every day - and her annual trips away with the Ellen MacArthur Trust have become a highlight of her summer.  Through trust trips, young people from across the UK can develop confidence through learning new skills, making friends, pushing physical boundaries, and rediscovering their independence.

“It’s somewhere I can completely be myself,” Ellie explains.

“No one there is concerned about side effects, or about looking different. Everyone there has been through the same thing, and we can talk about anything and support each other without worrying about being understood.

“I look forward to the trips every year, I enjoy making new friends and trying new activities that I never thought I could do.”

Visit ellenmacarthurcancertrust.org for details.