'The day my best friend died of cancer was the worst of my life, and after coming through treatment for the same disease I wonder why I survived and she didn't'
After being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia, Newtownabbey teenager Adelle Keown endured a gruelling treatment regime and was even told at one point that she had weeks to live. But after a 'miracle' recovery Adelle completed a heroic cycling challenge for charity, as she tells Stephanie Bell
What a difference a year has made to Co Antrim teenager Adelle Keown who has gone from fighting for her life to helping transform the quality of life for others.
The 17-year-old, who was given weeks to live in June of last year, has just taken part in the BBC's punishing rickshaw cycle challenge for Children in Need.
The mental and physical endurance of the 400-mile trek across Wales to England in all weathers is all the more remarkable given that this time last year Adelle was gravely ill.
Her proud parents Leanne and Robert, twin brother Aaron (17) and younger brother Carter (11) flew to England to cheer her along for the final leg of the eight-day challenge.
Adelle, from Whiteabbey, was part of a team of six young people, led by The One Show presenter Matt Baker, who took turns cycling a rickshaw from Holyhead to the finish line at the BBC's Elstree Studios in London.
The arrival coincided with the annual Children in Need showpiece, which aired on November 15.
This time last year, however, Adelle was facing a challenge of a very different kind, one which was life-threatening.
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Last October she had undergone a bone marrow stem cell transplant after being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia.
This was the same blood cancer that had claimed the life of her best friend, Victoria, in November 2017.
Just four months later, in March 2018, Adelle was given the horrifying news that she too had the same type of cancer.
Now fully recovered after what her mum describes as "a miracle", Adelle talks for the first time about the trauma which saw her spend 119 days in the hospital, struggling with aggressive chemotherapy which didn't work.
Adelle, who withholds her friend's full name to protect her loved-ones' privacy, recalls: "Vicky and I met at school and lived quite close to each other and would have been in each other's houses a lot and we were really close.
"When she was diagnosed I didn't even know what leukaemia was and I had never had anyone close to me who was sick before and it was a real shock.
"When Vicky took ill she was only 14 and she fought it for two years and then it came back again. Despite what she was going through she was always smiling and that made it a bit easier when you went to visit her as she wasn't upset.
"Apparently it is a cancer more common in older women and very unusual in young people of our age.
"The day she died was the worst day of my life. She had got better and was back to school but then it came back so quickly."
Adelle's shock was compounded just a few months later, then, when she was told she had the same disease.
"When I took ill, my GP sent me to the Mater Hospital - they did blood tests there and sent us to the City Hospital," she recalls.
"I knew then I had the same thing as Victoria. I don't know why but it came into my head immediately when they said the results were back and they needed to discuss them."
Adelle was immediately transferred to the Royal Victoria Hospital where she underwent a number of blood transfusions before starting a course of chemotherapy.
The treatment took its toll on her body and she was so ill she was unable to leave hospital for almost four months. She recalls: "My hair fell out and I was constantly being sick and half of the time I was unable to walk. I also had really bad nose bleeds.
"After the first treatment I was told that my cancer levels, which had been 80%, went down to 7% but after the second one they went up to 89% and it just didn't work."
It was at this point in June of last year that Adelle's parents were told there was nothing more that could be done for her and that she had just weeks to live.
Her mum Leanne recalls: "They said they could give her chemo which might prolong her life a little and that it was now palliative care and she had weeks rather than months. I looked at Robert and I just said 'no, there is going to be a miracle, this isn't going to happen'. We decided not to tell Adelle."
Robert and Leanne researched alternative medicines and treatments online. Alongside the chemotherapy, her parents gave her turmeric supplements, Lifemel Honey and grape seed oil daily. She also meditated and there were a lot of prayers said.
Leanne says: "We were never people to pray but we all prayed every day for a miracle cure for Adelle. She also listened to meditation tapes in hospital each day because we read that would be beneficial."
Within just a couple of weeks Adelle rang one day to say she was allowed home from hospital for the day.
"It was a miracle. I can't say if the treatments we gave her did it but something happened that wasn't supposed to. We knew in our hearts something was working as she'd really picked up and was eating again and was more herself. We got the miracle."
Tests to check the levels of cancer revealed that they had dropped from 89% to just 3%.
A much healthier and happier Adelle was finally able to return home from hospital although she still had a tough road ahead with bone marrow stem cell surgery in Bristol.
She underwent the procedure on October 26 of last year and was so ill she had to stay in hospital in England for several weeks, finally getting home a week before Christmas on December 18.
Her mum says: "Her cancer levels had to be lower than 5% to have a chance of the transplant working and it took them a while to find a donor who had to be a 100% match for Adelle. To see her so well and then to have to go back to seeing her so sick again was hard. She had blisters from her throat right down to her stomach and she was on morphine - you could see how much pain she was in. It has taken months for her to get her strength back."
Adelle reveals that she thinks about her friend, Victoria a lot.
"I do think about why I survived and she didn't because she deserved to be here," she says. "It was Vicky who got me through. On my worst days I thought of her and that kept me going."
Adelle received great support from the Cancer Fund for Children's residential programme for young people with cancer.
The programme, which is part funded by BBC Children in Need, helps young people by building their self-confidence, helping them develop coping skills and introducing them to other young people impacted by cancer.
It was the charity which nominated her to take part in the Rickshaw Challenge.
Still weak from her treatment and surgery, a delighted Adelle hit the gym in July and, together with her dad, completed a daily training routine to build up her strength and stamina. Adelle says: "I watch the Rickshaw Challenge every year on TV so when they rang me in July and asked if I wanted to do it I couldn't believe it.
"I was still very weak and I knew I had to get myself physically fit. Children in Need sent a training schedule and my dad came to the gym with me and we trained every day for an hour or two, seven days a week, from July up until November."
As the big day approached, it was with some trepidation that Adelle flew over to join her team-mates in England. She says: "I was mostly worried about not being able to do it and not being able to get up the hills or keep up with everyone else.
"Most days we each covered eight or nine miles and there were days I really struggled but when you see all the people out in the streets pushing for you and cheering you on, it gives you a buzz to keep going."
Having tackled the highest village in the UK, Flash, which lies 1,519ft above sea level in the Peak District, and the steepest street in the world in Harlech, Wales, Adelle was elated to finish it and help raise a stunning £8.5m for the charity.
Not only has she made lifelong friends in the other team-mates but she says the experience has changed her perspective on things.
She says: "When we were on TV each night everyone was giving speeches and going on radio and doing interviews but I really struggled that way.
"I panic being in front of a group of people but by the end of it I was able to do it and talk on TV which was great as it really built my confidence.
"It was really hard at the end for us to leave each other as we had become really good friends and I will definitely visit the other team-mates at some time and we will be friends for life.
"Matt was the nicest person in the world. What you see on TV is exactly what you get and he was always looking out for each of us and making sure we were okay."
Adelle returned home to a hero's welcome in Whiteabbey where all of her neighbours gathered to cheer her.
Having only started her GCSE course at Hazelwood Integrated College when she took ill, she still managed to pass five exams.
She now hopes to fulfil her dream of studying to be a hairdresser.
She explains: "Doing the challenge has shown me that I can achieve things. I got a second chance of life and I am going to go for it."
Her proud mum Leanne adds: "To see Adelle taking part in the Rickshaw Challenge when not even a year ago she was so ill was just amazing. We cried buckets and we were so proud of her.
"She has shown herself what she can achieve and she has always wanted to be a hairdresser and now there is nothing to stop her achieving her dream."