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Co Tyrone woman Shannon Whitehouse on raising thousands for charity after devastating diagnosis

Shannon Whitehouse, from Co Tyrone, tells Stephanie Bell about her devastating Ewing's sarcoma diagnosis and why she's now focused on spending time with her loved ones and raising funds for the charity that's helped her

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Shannon Whitehouse from Coalisland

Shannon Whitehouse from Coalisland

Shannon Whitehouse from Coalisland

Within just a week of being told the shattering news that she has just months to live, a brave Co Tyrone woman has raised tens of thousands of pounds for a local charity.

Shannon Whitehouse spent last year undergoing aggressive treatment for a rare tissue and bone cancer only to be told this month that it had not worked.

Now as she faces the devastating reality that her future and all her dreams are to be wiped out, Shannon is focusing on helping others as she raises money for the local charity The Boom Foundation.

Her decision to set up an appeal for the charity, which supports patients with sarcoma, has led to a huge outpouring of support, not just locally but around the world.

The 26-year-old from Coalisland says she is overwhelmed by how people have rallied round to support her: "I was advised to put a target of £5,000 on the justgiving page, but I didn't think I could get that much so I put it up for £2,500.

"It just went crazy. Within 24 hours we had over £10,000 and people have just kept giving non-stop. It is now sitting at £30,000.

"I also organised a fundraising night last weekend and had to move venues because our original venue couldn't hold all the people who wanted to come.

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Shannon with her mum and dad, sister Maurade and brothers Pierce (far left) and TJ

Shannon with her mum and dad, sister Maurade and brothers Pierce (far left) and TJ

Shannon with her mum and dad, sister Maurade and brothers Pierce (far left) and TJ

"We had over 500 people in the local parochial hall for music and games and a raffle and I still have money coming in from that. It has been amazing, people have just rallied to support the cause - and not just locals but people I don't even know. There have even been donations from Australia."

Shannon is a beautiful and bubbly young woman who loves fitness and worked in administration for a financial adviser.

It was around October 2018 that she took a pain in her hip and initially thought it was linked to her fitness training. She went to her GP who sent her to a physiotherapist, who felt it could be a pulled muscle and advised her to rest it.

But it didn't go away and in January last year, after her hip started to swell, a concerned Shannon went to the accident and emergency department at Craigavon Area Hospital. Just hours later doctors delivered the shocking news that she had a tumour.

Recalling how they broke the news to her, Shannon says: "The doctors carried out X-rays and came back to tell me they had seen something in my hip and I would have to have an MRI scan. They did the scan so quickly that I just had a feeling that it wasn't good news.

"A week later we got the results to confirm it was sarcoma on the bone. I was told it was a rare type of cancer and at that stage they didn't know which one, as there are over 100 different types of sarcoma.

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Shannon with  nephew Brodie McGahan

Shannon with nephew Brodie McGahan

Shannon with nephew Brodie McGahan

"Even though I had a niggle in the back of my mind that something serious was wrong, it was still a complete shock and seeing how it affects your family and friends is completely heartbreaking."

Shannon was referred to the cancer centre at Belfast City Hospital for a biopsy where they were able to determine she had Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of blood and tissue cancer.

Initially, however, her prognosis was good. "They said their aim was to cure it, although nothing is guaranteed," she explains. "They said it was an aggressive cancer so I would need one of the harshest chemo treatments and would lose my hair.

"But I cope really well under pressure and I like to think I am a positive person so I decided to do it my way. I held a head shaving party with all my friends and family and shaved my hair myself."

Shannon started her treatment in April and over the next seven months was given a total of five different types of chemotherapy, spending a large part of that time in hospital because of the horrendous side-effects.

"It was really tough and some months I was really sick and bed-bound. I had sepsis five times and I had to go into isolation in hospital. It was a tough year. I had bad days and good days, but I was determined to get through it."

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Shannon with Maurade

Shannon with Maurade

Shannon with Maurade

Then, after chemotherapy she completed a course of 42 radiotherapy sessions, which finished in November.

She enjoyed a quiet Christmas at home with her family - parents Siobhan and Thomas and sisters Maurade (29) and brothers TJ (31) and Pierce (23) and her little nephew Brodie, who is three.

She could feel some pain returning to her hip and suspected that all was not well. Then, at the start of January she had a scan to check if the treatment had worked and a week later was told the shattering news that her tumour had in fact grown.

The outcome couldn't have been worse, but Shannon has amazed everyone with her reaction - which was to use what time she has left to help others by launching her charity fundraiser.

"They told me that unfortunately the treatment had not been successful and my tumour had grown back even more aggressively than before," she says.

"They said they could offer me a type of chemo that might contain it but that was not guaranteed. They said I had months to live, not years.

"I had a bit of a feeling myself that it wouldn't be good as the pain was back in my hip, but of course I still didn't want to be told that there is nothing can be done..."

Since then she has been sustained by the support of her loved ones - and a determination to leave a lasting legacy.

Shannon continues: "I have an amazing support system of family and friends who are the best in the world and they have been my backbone; they have got me through it all. There are no better people out there.

"Since I was first diagnosed I wanted to raise money for The Boom Foundation and initially I thought I would do it after I had recovered.

"Now, after recent events, I've decided to do it while I am still fit. Everyone has rallied round and the response has just been overwhelming."

With her justgiving page sitting at £28,000 (and climbing) in just over a week, Shannon has established a legacy beyond her dreams.

Those who supported her and who went along to a fundraising night - 'Shine for Shannon' - in her local parochial hall last Saturday have helped turn what was the darkest week of her life into the most memorable.

She says: "I have no words for how generous people have been and how so many have rallied round in such a short space of time. It has been a lovely distraction. Last Saturday was genuinely the best night of my life and I still can't believe it.

"People keep asking me what I want to do with the time I have left and if I want to go away anywhere, but I spent last year in hospital and I am just happy to be home with my family and chilling out. Honestly, that's all I want to do at the moment.

"My family has always been incredibly close and they are what get me through. My wee nephew Brodie means the world to me, he brightens up my days."

Shannon wanted to give something back to The Boom Foundation, which is the only charity in Northern Ireland supporting patients with sarcoma.

In the early days after her diagnosis the charity reached out to her and supported her.

She says: "A lot of people don't know what sarcoma is. I just want to spread as much word as possible. Sarcoma makes up less than 1% of all cancers, mainly affecting children. Therefore it does not receive the same level of recognition or funding for research. Just because we are a minority doesn't mean we are any less important, no child should have to suffer the way my family and I have.

"The Boom Foundation specifically helps sarcoma patients living in Northern Ireland, with things such as travel expenses and wee days out. It also invests money into Sarcoma UK for research into new treatments and care."

In the meantime Shannon has yet to decide if she wants to continue with the chemotherapy that was offered in the hope of giving her a few more months.

She adds: "I don't know what I will do. At the minute I feel and look a bit more like my old self and I just want to be normal and be at home with my family. I have to take it day by day for now and I am just trying to be as upbeat as possible.

"My family are devastated and it is hard for them. Spending time with them at home now is really all that I want to do. Raising money for Boom has really given me a lift."

If you want to support Shannon's appeal you can make a donation at justgiving.com/fundraising/shannon-whitehouse.

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