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Young footballer who beat ‘impossible’ tumour has set her heart on becoming a Lioness as her heroes prepare for Women’s World Cup Final tomorrow

9 months ago

Young footballer who beat ‘impossible’ tumour has set her heart on becoming a Lioness as her heroes prepare for Women’s World Cup Final tomorrow

As the Lionesses prepare for the Women’s World Cup Final there’s one young St Helens footballer who will be cheering louder than most.

SHE’s the little girl with the courage of a Lioness.

And now 10-year-old Leah Bennett whose love of football helped her recover from an ‘impossible’ tumour has set her heart on playing for her country, spurred on by the success of the England team in the Women’s World Cup.

Leah, from Bold in St Helens, says: “I love playing football because I love being part of a team and, although I’m limited in terms of what I can play after the effects of my treatment, football is one of the things I can get involved in.

“I’d love to play for England one day because it’s my home country and my heroes are the Lionesses, so watching the team progress so far in the World Cup tournament has been just brilliant. I’ve been cheering them on.” 

The football-mad youngster even got to meet one of her idols, Laura Coombs, before she jetted off to Australia with the rest of the squad.

Women's World Cup - The Guide Liverpool
Leah with England star Laura Coombs

Leah adds: “She came to see me and my team when we were training, and it was brilliant. She chatted to us about her football journey, and she was so normal and down to earth. 

“I love watching the Lionesses play, and I’d love to show other children with serious illnesses that you can achieve anything you put your mind to, that you can follow your dreams, and you should never give up no matter what.”

In 2019, when she was only six years old, Leah survived and recovered from a tumour on her spine that many of the world’s top surgeons felt was too risky to remove because it was large and wrapped around major blood vessels including her aorta and the arteries feeding Leah’s legs.

In what her surgical team at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital 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 work out how, and if, they could remove it.

And, while oncologists across the country advised it was too risky and she could bleed to death during surgery or be left paralysed – and with only a 10% chance of success – the team in Liverpool went ahead. “If they didn’t operate she would probably have only survived for another six months,” says dad Stephen, a 42-year-old NHS hospital manager. “She was already in a wheelchair because she was struggling to walk. It was horrendous.”

Thankfully, the surgery was a success, removing 95% of the tumour. 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.

Stephen, who now coaches Rainhill United Under-12s girls’ team for which she is a defender, says: “Leah is the smallest player in the team but she loves playing football. I don’t care whether she wins matches or scores goals, because there was a time I thought I’d never see her back on a football pitch.

“There is still a long-term impact; she gets out of puff and her heart is weaker, so I try to manage her expectations. But I’d never want to crush her dream and I tell her to keep playing so she gets better and better, and we’ll see. Who knows?

“What’s happened so far is little short of miraculous, so I’d never say never. Leah keeps showing us that nothing is impossible.”

Stephen, who’s married to civil servant Claire, 42, with whom he also has a 14-year-old daughter Phoebe, says Leah started playing only months before her cancer diagnosis. But he believes it’s helped her become active again and regain her fitness and mobility.

He goes on: “Leah watched the Lionesses when they won the European Championships last July and absolutely loved it, and her support of them has grown ever since. We go and watch Everton and Everton Women’s teams, for whom Leah has been a mascot, and she said ‘dad, do you think I could ever play for them?’.

“She would like to play for Everton – and she would love to play for England,” smiles Stephen.

“Every time Leah goes onto the pitch it makes me burst with pride. If she went on wearing an England shirt, I’d be a wreck. You’d have to mop me up.

“Leah is such a spirited young girl who gets on with life, and she is incredible. She’s an inspiration. I wouldn’t put anything past Leah, she’s a decent little player so who knows what she might do.

“I’d be so proud of her if she played football for her country, but I’m just as proud of her now… and grateful for the miracle that means she’s still here.”

As the country prepares for England’s Women to go up against Spain this Sunday, does the potential future squad member think they’ll win?

“Spain are a good team so it will be close,” says Leah, “but I think they have a great chance of winning – maybe 3-2 to England?!”

Find twenty places to watch the Women’s World Cup Final in Liverpool HERE.



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