A brave schoolgirl from the Waterside in Derry, who has just finished receiving treatment for cancer, has enjoyed an out of this world experience at a special party in London courtesy of the Little Star Awards.
The initiative is specifically designed to salute the courage of children coping with the disease – and recently 12-year-old Alexandra Johnston found herself as the guest of honour at the ‘stars and space’ themed Little Star Awards party, hosted by Cancer Research UK and TK Maxx at the Kensington Roof Gardens in London.
The daughter of Andre and Karen Johnston, from Victoria Gate area in Derry, Alexandra took part in the celebration, which was also organised to help raise awareness of the charity’s groundbreaking work in the field of childhood cancer research.
Alexandra, who was diagnosed with Ewings Sarcoma in August 2013, was one of 21 children from across the UK who came together as special ambassadors to represent the 500 children who received Little Star Awards during 2013 and 14.
This type of bone cancer – named after the surgeon who first described it – is most common in teenagers and usually starts in the pelvis, thigh or shin bones.
As part of the big day out, Alexandra enjoyed an afternoon of galactic-inspired games and astronomical activities, including experiments with dry ice, slime making, rocket launching and sampling freeze-dried astronaut ice-cream.
Alexandra also met a host of celebrities – including Strictly Come Dancing’s Robin Windsor and Kristina Rhianoff, presenter and actress Gaby Roslin and EastEnders stars Maddy Hill (Nancy Carter), Maisie Smith (Tiffany Butcher) and actor Jamie Borthwick (Jay Mitchell), before receiving her Little Star Awards medal.
The day was rounded off with entertainment from CBeebies favourite RastaMouse and musical group Go!Go!Go!
Alexandra’s cancer was discovered in May 2013, after she hurt her ankle while playing on a bouncy castle.
She had previously broken the same ankle three times in one year when she was just three years old and, at the time, had to undergo physiotherapy.
The injury meant she had to miss a lot of school, but doctors told the family that nothing more could be done until she reached 16.
Following the sprain, she complained occasionally of pain, but it didn’t seem to be too serious.
However, in July she woke during the night with a pain so severe, she was taken to hospital, but doctors could not find anything of any real consequence.
When things did not improve, Alexandra’s parents took her to Belfast for a private appointment, where an MRI scan of her ankle suggested she had a floating bone.
She was given a large support boot to wear and asked to return again at the end of August.
While on a visit to her grandparents her leg became badly swollen and she complained of severe back pain.
Coincidentally, her grandfather had an appointment with a consultant the following morning and, concerned about his granddaughter, called and asked if he could bring Alexandra with him.
A referral to Musgrave hospital resulted in a second MRI scan – this time from the knee down – which revealed that, not only did Alexandra have cancer, but it had spread to her spine and spinal cord.
In fact, the family were travelling home from the hospital appointment when they received a phone call asking them to return immediately.
The cancer was so aggressive, she was immediately admitted to hospital, where she had chemotherapy, radiotherapy and stem cell transplant.
“This was absolutely devastating news. Her grandfather, my father, had died just two years before this from bowel cancer.
But even more bad news hit the family, when in November, just three months after Alexandra’s diagnosis, my mother was also diagnosed with cancer, Hodgkins’ Lymphoma,” said Andre.
Throughout all this, Alexandra also experienced the trauma of seeing three children who were treated in the ward with her, die from their illness – a baby just one year old and two little five-year-old boys, Oscar and Niall.
Commending Alexandra for her bravery, Jean Walsh, senior press officer for Cancer Research UK revealed that Alexandra insisted on attending their funerals.
Speaking after the party, Andre said: “It was amazing and Alexandra had a ball. It really was a fun-filled day.
“I couldn’t believe we were in London, six floors up on a roof garden with flamingoes. Cancer Research UK staff were amazing, and the celebrities stayed for a good few hours, chatting to everyone. They didn’t just rush in, get their photos taken and leave,” he said.
Despite her illness, Andre said his daughter, a past pupil of Hollybush Primary School, remained bright and even though she has not been able to go to school in case she suffers infection, she has been keeping in touch with her school friends.
“She was to go to St Cecilia’s in September, but did not do,” he said.
“She visited for three or four half days before the end of term before the school broke up and she has met her new class and the school have been very, very good to her.
Describing how his daughter had to endure six bouts of chemotherapy between August and Christmas last year, he said she had another session in January.
“She was in isolation for five weeks,” he said.
“She was absolutely amazing with everybody and has taken everything in her stride. She just met it head on and has completely dealt with it.”
He continued: “The doctors are just astonished with her and think she has done very well.
“She is a wee beacon in the hospital and her attitude is just amazing,” he said proudly.
Praising the staff in the hospital and for the support and help from various charity organisations, including Clic Sargent, the Little Star Awards and Cancer Research UK as well TKMaxx for the London trip.
Jean Walsh, Cancer Research UK spokesperson for Northern Ireland said: “It was fantastic to see Alexandra’s smile light up as she took part in our stars and space-themed party and met lots of celebrities.
“The Little Star Awards party is a truly inspiring event and it is a privilege to be able to recognise the incredible courage of children like Alexandra who confront cancer with such fortitude.”