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Life was carefree and fun for Emma until shock cancer diagnosis - now in remission, she is ready to 'fight dirty' to help others in their battle against disease

Bangor woman only 19 when struck by Hodgkin's lymphoma, but she has battled back to health and will, along with her sisters, take part in Race for Life's Pretty Muddy event

By Stephanie Bell

This time last year Bangor nursing student Emma Bell was cruising through her teenage years without a care in the world, when overnight a shocking cancer diagnosis turned her world upside down.

Now back at university, but still recovering from a gruelling personal battle to beat the disease, she has selflessly thrown herself into fundraising for Cancer Research UK, helping to launch this year's Pretty Muddy race.

In May her four older sisters - Elizabeth (23), Sarah (25), Victoria (33) and Alex (39) - joined her in raising £500 in the charity's Race for Life.

All five will now be getting dirty in the fight against cancer as they support the second Race for Life Pretty Muddy, a women-only, non-competitive 5k obstacle course - with mud.

As a 19-year-old diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma last summer Emma, now just turned 21, says she never dreamt that cancer would touch her life at such an age.

"Cancer definitely wasn't something I ever thought about," she admits. "You see the posters everywhere, and the TV ads, and you never think it will affect you, especially at a young age. The day I was diagnosed I told myself I could beat it, and I did. The work that Cancer Research UK does to try and find a cure is unbelievable. They do such a fabulous job, and we need to keep research going, and for that they need funds.

"I did the Race for Life in May with my sisters and it is great fun taking part in the events, so I had no hesitation helping launch Pretty Muddy and signing up, and my sisters, who have been a brilliant support, are doing it with me."

Emma's symptoms started suddenly and proved very aggressive. Within hours she was in hospital, where she stayed for two weeks undergoing a number of tests for a suspected viral condition.

She says cancer was never mentioned, and after her release from hospital, when she had returned to her part-time job as a carer in the community, it was her GP who called at the family home and broke the shocking news to her parents Yvonne and Ian.

Emma says: "I was getting ready for college when I had this horrendous pain at the right side of my back. I was home alone and had to call my mum, who was in hospital at the time being treated for a kidney abscess.

"She sent my sisters round, and by the time they arrived I was in so much pain I had started to hyperventilate.

"My sisters rang an ambulance, and because I was hyperventilating, the hospital ordered a full CT scan straight away."

The CT indicated swollen lymph nodes in her neck and a tumour under her sternum. Emma remained in hospital for two weeks while tests were carried out, but never once did she suspect just how seriously ill she was, which was why the diagnosis, just as life was getting back to normal, was such a shock.

She says: "The consultants kept telling me I had nothing to worry about, and it was probably an infection, so cancer never entered my head.

"I went back to my job and was out at work when our family GP called at our house one night.

"He has known us for years and he said that he felt we should know that it was believed I had Hodgkin's lymphoma."

Emma had to arrange to get her work shift covered and headed home to hear the news from her parents.

Initially, she said, that all three of them were so shocked that they found it hard to comprehend that she was seriously ill.

She says: "Until this I was a healthy 19-year-old girl studying for a level four health and social care course to allow me to go on to study adult nursing. I hadn't a care in the world.

"When my parents told me what the doctors thought was wrong with me it just didn't sink in, and I couldn't believe it was really happening.

"Then when the consultant confirmed it, I felt the whole world was crashing down around me - I had sleepless nights full of fear, went through so many emotions, and battled fatigue. It all got too much. One day I was living a carefree life, then within a flash one sentence had the potential to knock me off my feet. Except I didn't let it. I knew I could do it. I just had to tell myself every day: 'Come on Emma, you can do this'. And I did!"

Emma underwent surgery to have one of the lymph nodes removed from her neck. As she was so young, before she could start chemotherapy and radiotherapy, she faced three weeks of IVF, when she had her eggs frozen as a precaution against any fertility issues which might or might not be caused by the treatment.

She then started chemo and had eight rounds from June until October, followed by four sessions of radiotherapy from November until Christmas.

Happily, Emma started this year with the news everyone was praying for - she was 100% in remission.

In February, just two months after she finished her treatment, she started a three-year BSc degree course in adult nursing at Queen's University in Belfast.

She says: "I just wanted to get back into a routine and get my head focused on something. I am feeling really good, especially in the last couple of months, the tiredness is not as bad, although I do have days when I still struggle a bit with fatigue, and find it hard to get out of bed.

"I haven't decided what aspect of nursing I want to go into yet, but I currently have a placement in a ward in the Ulster Hospital, and it is nice to be on the other side, and to have the chance to give back to other people the type of great care that I received when I was ill.

"That's why I have got involved with Cancer Research UK and I think it is important that people support research.

"Pretty Muddy is a way to do that and have fun."

Now, women across Northern Ireland are being urged to join Emma and her sisters and "fight dirty" when it comes to conquering cancer by signing up for Belfast's second Pretty Muddy race.

Last year Race for Life's first Pretty Muddy received a wholehearted welcome from the thousands of women who took part. It is thanks to their enthusiasm that organisers have decided to stage another one in September and are urging women to secure their place as soon as possible.

Angela Wilson, Cancer Research UK area events manager for Northern Ireland, says: "We're delighted to be able to bring Pretty Muddy back to Ormeau Park, as it's a fantastic addition to our Race for Life family of events. It has all the fun and camaraderie of our much loved 5k and 10k events but with added obstacles and, of course, mud.

"Women can complete the Pretty Muddy course at their own pace, climbing, jumping, walking and laughing their way around. It's about women of all ages, shapes and sizes tackling obstacles together.

"This event is an amazing way to celebrate everyone we love who has survived cancer. It's also an emotional and moving way to pay tribute to those dear to us whose lives have been cut short by the disease."

Money raised will allow Cancer Research UK's doctors, nurses and scientists to advance research, which is helping to save the lives of men, women and children across Northern Ireland and Britain.

  • Every hour, someone in Northern Ireland is diagnosed with cancer. Pretty Muddy will take place in Ormeau Park on Saturday, September 3. To sign up go to where there are time slots starting at 10am and the option to book a selected time

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