How inspirational teenager John Baxter beat leukaemia and a brain tumour
Marie Foy talks to the Omagh teenager using his own brave fight against cancer for a worthy cause
John Baxter (17), from Omagh, survived leukaemia as a toddler and a brain tumour two years ago. He took his GCSEs while battling through treatment and achieved an outstanding 11 A stars and a B. Now he is helping leading local charity Cancer Focus Northern Ireland encourage healthy living in a special DVD for schools.
John, who is a real inspiration to those around him, puts his recovery from a brain tumour, and his brilliant GCSE results, down to dogged determination, an optimistic outlook and support from his family, friends, medical staff and school.
Although he's had a tough time of it, his experiences have had a positive spin-off on his life – he is studying physics, chemistry and biology for his A-Levels and has decided to become a doctor so he can give back to those who have helped him.
He has also been involved in fundraising for various charities. His latest venture is to share his story in a Cancer Focus Northern Ireland DVD to encourage other young people to be body aware, take exercise, eat healthily, avoid alcohol and not to smoke, in order to lower their risk of cancer in later life.
The video will be circulated to schools in the secondary sector across Northern Ireland and will also encourage pupils to fundraise for Cancer Focus, which has an extensive cancer prevention programme in schools and also funds locally-based cancer research.
John's fighting spirit became evident at a young age when he was diagnosed with leukaemia at just three. "My parents noticed I was limping, first on one leg and then the other. They didn't know which one was sore. And I couldn't really tell them," he explains.
"They took me to one doctor who thought it could be growing pains. Another doctor realised that this could be a sign of something more serious and I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.
"I don't really remember a lot about being sick, which is probably just as well, but I had five years of chemotherapy and lost my hair. I do remember getting regular lumbar punctures. I'd be offered gas or an injection before them and I remember the gas making everything go fuzzy. There are pictures of me with a big bandage on my arm where I used to get intravenous injections," he says.
While it was undoubtedly a nerve-wrecking time for his parents, Monica and Gerard, and elder brother Barry, the family got through it. It must have seemed so unfair when cancer struck for a second time when John was 15.
"On Boxing Day morning two years ago my parents were woken at 8am by the sound of me having a seizure in bed. My aunt, who is a doctor and had been staying nearby for the holidays, said to take me straight to A&E at Altnagelvin Hospital and told us to ask for a CT scan.
"When I got there the doctor was going to keep me in for 24 hour observation. My mum mentioned getting a CT scan, so they did one.
He recalls: "A brain tumour showed up, though they didn't know what type it was at that stage. I was taken straight away by ambulance to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast. I was given medication to prevent me having more seizures and steroids to reduce the swelling in the brain. I got out of hospital a couple of days later, just before New Year's Eve. I had my surgery on Monday, January 9, 2012 – it took seven hours and left me with a huge scar along the top of my head.
"I got out of hospital on Thursday that week but had to wait a couple of weeks for the biopsy results – it was a malignant Grade III rhabdoid meningioma but hadn't yet reached the stage where it was spreading. Because it was such a high grade tumour I had six weeks of radiotherapy – 30 sessions, the maximum you can get. That happened during March and April."
He adds: "The diagnosis was a massive shock for the whole family but looking back I realise that there were signs that something was wrong. I'd been getting a pain in my leg for about a year and had been to the doctor a number of times for X-rays of my leg and back. I put it down to carrying a heavy schoolbag. Blood tests showed there was inflammation but it might have been nothing more than symptoms of a cold.
"I'd also been getting headaches, almost every other day. At the time I thought they were just ordinary headaches. I never would have thought it was a brain tumour. Apparently the tumour presses on the cerebral spinal fluid and creates pressure that causes the pain," John said.
"The diagnosis was a real shock for all the family, though I think my mum was in part relieved that it explained where the pains were coming from. I was back at school in mid-February. My appointments were scheduled so I would miss as little school as possible. I could've dropped out for a year but I put my foot down and was determined I wasn't missing school and that I would continue revising for my GCSEs. I didn't want to repeat a year.
"It was hectic. I had to go to Belfast from Omagh every day, Monday to Friday, for six weeks – more than 4,000 miles in total – and I used to study during the drive. My hair fell out again and the treatment made me sleepy at times. It left me with what looked like very bad sunburn as well."
Despite his upbeat approach, John naturally felt anxious at times. "When I had a moment to stop and think about it, that there was a possibility that this could go horribly wrong, that was really scary.
"At the back of my mind I thought it would help mum and dad worry less if I pretended I was ok with everything and stayed strong for them. I found concentrating on my exams kept my mind occupied and it was my way of coping with what was happening. The radiotherapy was over by the time my exams ended and it was a relief just to be able to relax."
When it came to doing his exams John's school, Christian Brothers Grammar, was a tremendous support. He was allowed to do them on his own and take rest breaks. "I could sometimes feel myself going in the middle of an exam and when that happened I just had to rest until it wore off again. It all paid off and I got 11 A stars and a B, which was a bit crazy but I was delighted," he says.
Despite his health problems, John is very involved in charity work and for the last two summers has worked as a volunteer in his local War on Want shop. For his efforts he won the Omagh 2013 Community Spirit of the Year Award. John also recently told his story in a DVD for Cancer Focus which will be sent to post-primary schools.
"I was really excited to be involved in this project," he says. "Cancer is rare in people my age and there were no strong outward physical signs of my tumour, but many cancers are detectable early on, which is why we should all be body aware and look out for the signs and symptoms. I'd also urge young people to look after their health to help lower the risk of cancer when they're older.
"Cancer Focus also invests £300,000-£400,000 each year in cancer research in our local universities, an area I'm particularly keen to support as someone who has benefited enormously from medical advances."
Asked how he coped, John says: "You really don't know how you will react until you are in a certain situation but I do have a positive, determined attitude which I know got me through. I don't think I could've done it any other way. That, and having people around who can support you, and I'm really grateful to my family, friends, all my many medical carers and my school for everything."
John is still going for regular MRI scans and will be celebrating his 18th birthday in February. After his A-Levels he hopes to head off to university next autumn.
Simple tips to help lower your risk of cancer:
Keep to a healthy weight
Eat a healthy diet – five portions of fruit and veg each day, more fibre, less salt, sugar, and red and processed meat
Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise daily
Take care in the sun
Don't smoke. Call NI Smokers' Helpline, tel: 0808 812 8008
Follow health and safety guidelines when using chemicals
If you have health worries, go to your GP – early detection saves lives