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Teen Whose Cancer Was Mistaken For Exam Stress Documents Her Fight In Emotional Scrapbook

Ella's in July 2019, just before her diagnosis (PA Real Life/Collect)

Ella Richards' cancer symptoms were mistaken for exhaustion caused by end of year exam stress. Now, she has revealed how she documented her year-long battle with the disease in a highly personal scrapbook.

Richards had been counting the days until her family trip to Kalamata in southern Greece, for a 10-day break at the end of her first GCSE year in July 2019, only to start feeling poorly half way through.

When she was too tired to join the trip they all put her fatigue down to stress, following a hectic term of mock exams and coursework.

But, shortly after pneumonia landed her in hospital. Revealing she 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," she said.

“I'd only known of old people or people in films getting cancer, not girls like me – still at school."

Ella and her sister, Scarlet (PA Real Life/Collect)

“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," Richards continued.

“My dad got me all the materials and brought them in – a big blank book, felt tips and different colored card."

“I set about filling it in, from my holiday in Greece to my diagnosis, then built on it from there."

Her family worked hard to lift her spirits.

“Mum printed off photos for me and brought in old prescription boxes and things like that," she said.

“And now, when I flick through my scrapbook – all 20 pages of it – I know that I can take whatever the world throws at me."

“We were making a trip to a local village. It was about an hour's walk and when we got there I collapsed onto a chair and did nothing at all while my family explored," she said.

“When it came to going back to the apartment, I physically couldn't carry on – we had to get a taxi."

“Mum thought it was a combination of the heat and the busy end to the school year."

Melanie, Charlie, Gavin, Scarlet and Ellal (PA Real Life/Collect)

“Year 10 was my first year of GCSEs and the work definitely stepped up a gear," she continued.

When Richards returned home her symptoms became worse.

“It was a really strange time," she said. “I usually love food, but I just felt like I didn't need it."

Ella with mum and sister, Melanie and Scarlet, in July 2019 (PA Real Life/Collect)

“I would push my food around my plate and have a few mouthfuls," she said.

With no signs of improvement by mid-August, Richards went to the GP where she was given a blood test. A week later she was told she had a low red blood cell count.

Diagnosed with anaemia and prescribed iron supplements, within a fortnight she developed a chesty cough and was given antibiotics for a chest infection.

But, a week into the 10-day course of antibiotics, Richards' parents found her struggling to breathe in her bedroom and could not wake her properly.

An X-ray revealed that her lungs were filled with a concerning amount of liquid and she was diagnosed with pneumonia, before being transferred to Birmingham Children's Hospital.

In Birmingham, her lungs were drained and, after an examination revealed she had swollen lymph nodes in her neck she was given a biopsy.

“The doctors told me it was very normal to have swollen lymph nodes when the body has been putting up a fight," she said.

But four days later, Richards was diagnosed with high grade non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, an aggressive form of cancer, diagnosed annually in just one in every 100,000 UK young women aged between 15 and 19, according to Cancer Research UK.

“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.

Ella in Warwick Hospital (PA Real Life/Collect)

“But when they didn't come back in five minutes I started to get really worried," she said.

“It felt like they'd been gone hours but it was probably more like 20 mins."

“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."

Ella's journal (PA Real Life/Collect)

“That's when he told me it was cancer. I felt terrified. All I could think was, 'Oh my god, what if I die?'" she continued.

It was at this point that a nurse suggested Richards started a hobby, and she chose to begin her scrapbook.

She started chemotherapy in October 31.

Ella's journal (PA Real Life/Collect)

“Nothing can prepare you for chemo," she said.

“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."

She knew she needed to take control.

“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," she said.

Richards kept documenting her experience, her scrapbook became more than just a distraction.

“The scrapbook helped me in more ways than I could have imagined," she said.

Ella's journal (PA Real Life/Collect)

“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," she continued.

“Even now, it's great to see how much I've achieved."

Discharged a week after shaving her head, on November 14, Richards was surprised when she came home to a gift – a $630 voucher for the Bullring shopping centre in Birmingham – from the charity Molly Olly's Wishes.

Ella's journal (PA Real Life/Collect)

“My mum had contacted the charity while I was in hospital," she said.

“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, Richards had a follow-up scan at Warwick Hospital, the results of which she received a week later.

“My mum got a phone call saying the cancer had gone and she came into my room to tell me," she said.

“I love a lie in, so when she told me, I just said, 'Oh great,' and fell back to sleep."

However, her plans were interrupted by the pandemic.

The one good thing, as far as Richards is concerned, is that lockdown means exams have been cancelled.

“I couldn't believe it when they said that there'd be no exams for GCSEs this year," she said.

Ella's journal (PA Real Life/Collect)

“I was always going to have a mark based on my mocks, but it felt good knowing that my entire year will be in the same boat when we start A-levels," she said.

But, sadly, Richards is not out of the woods yet.

She developed a nasty cough at the start of June, and her family wasted no time taking her back to the doctor. Where an examination revealed she again had swollen lymph nodes in her neck.

And, on June 23, doctors revealed 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."

Ella shaved her hair to 'take back control' (PA Real Life/Collect)

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.

“The doctors have told me that if I stick with this treatment there's an 80 per cent chance of full remission," she said.

Richards now hopes to find work helping other people who have gone through similar experiences to her own.

“I always wanted to be a doctor, but now I'm thinking about working in oncology, so I can help people like me," she said.

“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."

Ella's fifth round of chemotherapy(PA Real Life/Collect)

“I want to be able to do that for other people," she concluded.

Further information about Molly Olly's Wishes or how to donate can be found at: www.mollyolly.co.uk