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Young footballer Leah proves nothing is impossible after miracle op which helped her survive

2 years ago

Young footballer Leah proves nothing is impossible after miracle op which helped her survive

Three years ago Leah Bennett was facing death after being diagnosed with a tumour some of the world’s top cancer surgeons said was ‘impossible’ to operate on.

But after ‘brave’ and pioneering surgery at Alder Hey, today she’s a budding young footballer who lives life to the full and is never happier than when she’s playing in defence for her team, Rainhill United Under-11s.

Leah receiving treatment on ward 3B in 2019

Dad Stephen, 41, says: “Every time Leah goes onto the pitch it makes me burst with pride.

“Leah keeps showing us that nothing is impossible.”

And he adds: “Her story is the stuff of dramas, it’s something that you see on TV.

“But it is a story of hope too, and what can be achieved if you get people who want to make a difference, and who are prepared to be brave.

“It’s amazing.”

Leah was just six when, in February 2019, she was diagnosed with a tumour on her spine which chemotherapy failed to shrink.

Oncologists consulted from across the country advised it was too risky to remove, amid fears the young schoolgirl from St Helens could bleed to death during surgery or be left paralysed.

Leah in intensive care after her major operation

“The tumour was large and wrapped around major blood vessels including her aorta and the arteries feeding Leah’s legs,” explains Stephen, a manager for Warrington Hospital.

“It was horrendous.”

But in what her surgical team at Alder Hey believed to be a first for a soft tissue tumour like hers, they used 3D printing technology and a high-resolution scanner to create a detailed model of the tumour to show Stephen and wife Claire what they were facing – and to work out if they could possibly remove it.

“They handed the model to us,” says Stephen. “And that was a strange feeling. It was just a bit of plastic, and yet it represented the thing that was killing our daughter.

“It was challenging. It was horrible. But the fact that they had done this meant that they were trying to find an answer, and maybe there was a chance. Others had said they wouldn’t do it, but the team at Alder Hey wanted to try.

“And the model they had made made them realise they could.”

It was still enormously difficult.

There was an 80% chance the surgeons, led by Jo Minford, wouldn’t be able to operate; and if they could, a 50-50 chance that Leah would bleed to death or be paralysed.

This meant there was just a 10% chance it would be a success.

“It’s all about perspective,” says Stephen. “We went into a meeting with the consultants, ready to fight, and expecting to be told they couldn’t do anything, so to be told there was a 10% chance that it would be a success and Leah would survive, felt incredible.

“If they didn’t operate, if they didn’t do anything, she would probably have only survived for another six months. She was already in a wheelchair because she was struggling to walk and it just didn’t feel like our daughter. Our daughter was active, she played football, she loved PE, and playing with her friends.

“If we didn’t give it a go, we would always have regretted it. Any chance was worth taking, so we walked away happy – terrified, but happy, because we had hope.”

Thankfully, the surgery was a success, removing 95% of the tumour before Leah went on to have radiotherapy. And, despite a relapse when a scan in December 2020 showed changes to the remaining cancer tissue, genetic testing meant targeted drugs could be used which has kept everything stable ever since.

“No one can tell us whether her current treatment will stop working tomorrow or whether it will work for the rest of her life, but there seems to be almost zero side effects, it’s been stable for almost two years and, fingers crossed, if that’s what she has to put up with, it’s a minor price to pay.”

Leah as a bridesmaid in Kos, with dad Stephen and her sister Phoebe

Stephen and Claire, who have another daughter Phoebe, 13, put every effort now into having as normal a life as they can, which has included a couple of post-Covid holidays to Dubai and Kos, where Leah was bridesmaid for her Godmother, as well as trips to Wales and Scotland.

But seeing Leah on the football pitch is a sign as to how far she – and they – have come, and how much of a miracle it has been.

“Leah is one of the smallest members of the team but she loves playing; she loves being part of the team and she has a great bunch of friends,” smiles Stephen, who’s recently taken on the role of head coach. “She’s a decent little player.

“I don’t care whether she wins matches or scores goals, because there was a time I thought I would never see her back on a football pitch. The first time she pulled her shirt back on, I had tears in my eyes.

“The 3D printing company who made the model of her tumour sponsors the team, so that sort of tops and tails Leah’s story for us.

“Leah is such a spirited young girl who gets on with life and is incredible. She’s an inspiration. And I am just so proud of her, and grateful for the miracle that means she is still here.

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