Fresh from sitting her GCSEs in hospital, the schoolgirl from Lurgan will join others battling the disease for a fundraising fashion show at Hillsborough Oyster Festival - Una Brankin hears the inspiring stories of those taking part
When Amy Uprichard steps out onto the catwalk in Hillsborough tomorrow night, she will send out a powerful message – that she is determined not to let cancer get in the way of living her life.
And, given the experience that has engulfed her over the summer, it's also natural that she should want to do her bit in memory of another young woman who was not as fortunate.
Jill Todd was an innovative photographer who died from bowel cancer just three months after diagnosis in 2010.
A former Wallace High pupil and First Class Honours graduate of Edinburgh's Napier University, her career took off with an internship at Edinburgh's Stills Gallery and with commissions from The Royal Bank of Scotland.
Without the financial backing to break into fashion photography, she contacted models on the Gumtree website, offering high-quality shots for free. But after tests to find out the cause of stomach pains, she found out she was seriously ill.
To commemorate her life, in January 2011 her family established the Jill Todd Trust to promote photo- graphy and the careers of young photographers, and to raise funds for cancer care and research. This week the Hillsborough Oyster Festival is again supporting the Jill Todd Trust, which is working in partnership with Friends of the Cancer Centre (at Belfast City Hospital), through the festival's annual Diamond and Pearl fashion show.
Taking part with Amy will be fellow Cancer Centre patients including Barbara Johnston (44). They treated to a glam makeover in the run-up to the show by sponsors Haven Beauty, Kube Hairdressing, and Lisburn fashion retailers Menarys and Vanilla.
Amy Uprichard (16) from Lurgan bravely completed her GCSEs in hospital and achieved two A-stars, six As and one B while receiving treatment for acute myeloid leukaemia, a rare type of blood cancer which starts in the bone marrow and can spread rapidly if not treated. A keen ballet dancer, she is studying at Banbridge Academy. She says:
My symptoms began in the middle of May this year, the same week as my GCSEs were starting. I was very, very tired and just wanted to sleep all the time.
I had no pain at the time; I just lay in bed all day and couldn't go to my dancing classes, which I love. I went to the doctor to get my blood tested and they showed I was low in iron.
I was prescribed iron tablets but a few days later we decided they weren't going to work so mum brought me to Craigavon Hospital A&E.
I had no idea what was wrong with me. I work part-time in a local Chinese restaurant and thought maybe, with that and the dancing and the GCSEs, I was taking too much out of myself.
They did more advanced tests in Craigavon and we were still convinced it was anaemia but when the haematologist, Dr Boyd called us in, she said straight out it was leukaemia.
She said it quite bluntly so I'd know what I was dealing with.
Mum and I were speechless. It had never crossed our minds and we didn't know what to say. We just sat there looking at each other. Dr Boyd said she had to run some more tests to confirm it was acute myeloid leukaemia – it's mostly over-60s that get it, so my case is rare. She explained everything to us and sent me straight to the City Hospital in Belfast for treatment. I stayed only one night in Craigavon.
I think I was just stunned by it all at first but I got my head around it and decided to be strong for everyone else.
Mum was pretty upset but when she saw I was ok, she thought there was no point in going to pieces.
This disease I have is very treatable and they caught it early. They think it may only have come on two weeks before the symptoms showed; the onset is very rapid.
I didn't find the treatment bad at all. The next course will be stronger and harder to take but apparently they can give stronger treatment to younger patients because they can withstand it. The only side effect I had was a bit more tiredness but I'd no sickness.
I was lucky. I was supposed to lose my hair in the first two weeks but I've kept it thank God – I really wouldn't like to lose it.
The doctor said I was very underweight going into treatment – I've always stayed slim for dancing and stuff but I've put on a little bit now so that I can withstand the inductions.
I've never come across leukaemia before and I had to ask the doctor if it was a type of cancer.
When the news first came out, a few people felt awkward and didn't know what to say but since then everyone's been really supportive and don't treat me any differently. They know I wouldn't want that.
When I finish these two rounds of chemotherapy I'll just have to go back for a few check-ups to see if I'm clear, then hopefully everything will go back to normal.
I actually really enjoyed this summer despite everything – I'm not allowed into big crowds but I got to see JLS and Snow Patrol, which was brilliant.
Being in hospital was a really different experience. It made me think I'd like to be a nurse later in life, after dancing.
Just seeing the way you can help people and how you can change their lives really inspired me. The care I had was absolutely amazing – the staff have become just like friends now.
There was a lot of fear. To be diagnosed is scary and I didn't know what to expect but I just treat it like a bump in the road – you deal with it for a couple of months and then it's gone. It makes you realise what really matters.
I was more worried about my GCSEs – they were all I thought about and I really wanted to get them. I did them in my ward in the City Hospital. I could have had extra time if I needed but I wanted to keep things as normal as possible.
The only two I couldn't do were business studies and history; I was far too tired that day. I could repeat them but I was told it wasn't necessary.
I'm studying French, business studies, chemistry and biology for A level so I can keep my options open for later in life, but the plan is a career in ballet, then nursing.
In the meantime, it's great to be involved in the Oyster Festival and the makeover was a really nice experience.
I'm going to be nervous doing the fashion show but it's something to look forward to."
Barbara Johnston (44), a primary school teacher from Larne, is married to Jason and they have a son Sam (8). She has been battling skin cancer in different parts of her body for more than 20 years, but has fought to live a normal life. She says:
I was 21 when I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. Mum noticed a mole on my right arm had changed shape and got bigger. It didn't get darker but it peeled, like sunburn. It wasn't a raised mole, just flat. There was no pain. I got it removed and had no bother until it started to spread.
I got a lump under my right arm removed when I was 23 – I'd had lumps under my skin before that but hadn't thought anything of it. The melanoma had gone into my lymph nodes.
I was absolutely scared; it was potentially dangerous and I had to get them all removed. I'd always been quite fit and healthy but I began to get very tired. The disease spread to the left side of my body and as it crossed over, it spread into my lungs. The prognosis wasn't good. I was 25 at the time and mum and dad were with me when I was given the diagnosis. I remember Dr McAleer giving me the good news first – that my pelvic area and my abdomen were clear. But then he told me it was in my lungs. I cried and asked him could he do something about it, and he said yes, but I didn't realise how limited the treatment available was. He told me to go home and spend Christmas with my family and start a type of immune therapy chemo in January.
I didn't know that during it my kidneys were slowly failing. My parents did and they sat with me round the clock and Dr McAleer would be calling in the middle of the night to check on me.
I was bed-bound for 10 days on a drip and it was horrendous. The stress of it was awful and wrecked my first marriage. I wasn't able to work and had to take six months off. I should have taken longer but I just wanted to get back to normal. As Dr McAleer said, it will make you or break you. He was always positive; there was no room to be negative with Dr McAleer. He took the fear out of it a bit, but it feels like you're stepping on a rollercoaster and you can't get off, going from pillar to post with all these tests.
I was very lucky that I responded well to the treatment and it cleared out of my lungs, but I had tumours in my left breast and shoulder and back, so I had to have surgery and radiotherapy. That seemed to clear them up but then I had to go St George's Hospital in London for a melanoma vaccine. I'd to go back and forth for four years. They weren't keen on me starting a family but I wanted to get married and have children, so in the end I stopped going and opted for treatment at the City Hospital instead.
I just get CT scans there; I take it from scan to scan but I'm cancer free at the moment and the prognosis is good. I took my own path and got married to Jason in 2003, and had my wee boy Sam in 2005. It has been a long battle but I've got through it all right.
Looking back, I was very, very lucky. I had amazing support from my parents. Mum cooked for me and helped me to face the various cycles of treatment and start all over again. There were times I couldn't lift my head off the pillow.
I got amazing counselling at the Cancer Centre which really helped, and that's why I'm always there for anyone who needs to talk, night or day.
I like to give something back, which is why I'm doing the Oyster Festival fashion show. It will be a bit of fun."