Glasgow & West Scotland

The friends who want to help other young cancer patients

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Media captionThe friends who want to help other young cancer patients

Schoolgirls Molly Cuddihy and Sara Millar became friends as they fought cancer - and now they are campaigning to improve services for younger patients.

Molly, 17, and Sara, 16, bonded in a teenage common room at the Royal Hospital for Children in Glasgow.

But they were deeply moved when they witnessed a boy being asked to leave their "happy space" because he was only 12.

The girls are now raising money to create a dedicated pre-teen room in the hospital's Schiehallion Unit.

They are hosting a charity ball which is also designed to express their gratitude to the NHS staff who looked after them over a combined period of 18 months.

Molly said the value of the facility could not be underestimated.

She said: "It is a safe place.

"You are not thinking the darker thoughts you get because it is a dark time. You are not aware of it and your mind is taken off it.

"The younger kids don't have that freedom to feel normal."

Image copyright Molly Cuddihy
Image caption Sara and Molly with X Factor judge Simon Cowell, who has made a major donation to their campaign.

Sara is currently in remission but Molly's cancer has returned, just weeks after she secured straights As in her exams.

But the teenager, who wants to be a doctor, has delayed her next phase of treatment until after the ball.

Sara was the first to be admitted to the Royal Hospital for Children after she was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma in November 2017.

Two months later, Molly was told she had Ewing sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.

The girls were both undergoing life-saving treatment when they were introduced in a common room supported by the Teenage Cancer Trust.

The facility is furnished with comfy chairs and includes a pool table, TVs, games consoles, dining table and a fridge stocked with treats.

Crucially, it offered the girls an escape from a gruelling programme of treatment that included chemotherapy, radiotherapy and major surgery.

Image copyright Teenage Cancer Trust
Image caption The teenage common room at the Royal Hospital for Children in Glasgow offers patients welcome respite from their treatment

Molly, from Gourock, Inverclyde, said: "We could go in and talk about things that we didn't want to talk about with our mums and dads.

"It is a different kind of friendship that you build when you are in treatment.

"You are going through what will be the worst experience of your lives together."

Sara said: "You shouldn't go through that alone.

"I would have liked to have met Molly in other circumstances but I am so glad I did meet her as she is such a strong personality.

"We inspire each other."

Among the subjects the girls discussed were the side-effects of chemotherapy.

Image copyright Molly Cuddihy
Image caption Molly and Sara spent a combined 18 months in the hospital's Schiehallion Unit

Sara, from Milngavie, East Dunbartonshire, added: "My other friends just wouldn't get it whereas Molly has had the drug, she has experienced it."

The 16-year-old spent six months in hospital and found the room to be a sanctuary.

She recalled: "It was a less clinical environment. Everyone is always hooked up to machines but you take them in with you.

"It is more homely. You can go and grab a drink out of the fridge."

Molly also credits it with keeping her weight up during treatment as she felt more comfortable eating there than on the ward.

She was in hospital for a year and said the times she shared in the room, especially with Sara, helped her to stay positive.

Molly added: "You are able to relax and stop focusing. You don't worry about not having hair as the person next to you does not have hair either."

'Upsetting'

But one poignant encounter with a younger patient made a lasting impression on the teenagers.

Molly said: "He was hooked up to four drips. He was deflated. He looked like a sick kid because he was sad.

"He walked in and he saw the TV and the comfy chairs and the Playstation and you just saw him light up a wee bit.

"Once he sat down and we got the Playstation working you could see he was getting brighter, he was lifting up and he was starting to become a kid again."

She said one of the nurses had the "horrible job" of coming in and saying to him: "I'm really sorry you can't be in here" because he was 12.

Image copyright Molly Cuddihy
Image caption Sara and Molly were invited on stage during a Teenage Cancer Trust concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London in March

"You just saw that light go away and he was suddenly sick again.

"That broke our hearts and was quite upsetting. We suddenly realised 'There is something missing here'."

The new facility, which has already been given the green light by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, will cater for children too old for the playroom but too young for the teenager's common room.

The girls believe it will motivate younger patients to get out of bed and give them a psychological boost.

Sara said: "There is this whole gap in the middle.

"They just stay in their room and they don't really have any friends on the ward. They are the ones we are trying to target."

The girls also want to fund improved facilities for visiting families and buy some specialised equipment to help exercise the muscles of patients in a coma or other medically-induced state.

Image copyright Molly Cuddihy
Image caption Molly with Take That star Gary Barlow

Molly is also campaigning to have a minimum standard of educational support for critically-ill young people so they can continue their studies during treatment.

In March the girls travelled to London to attend a Teenage Cancer Trust concert at the Royal Albert Hall, headlined by Take That.

Molly said: "We ended up on stage. They asked everyone to put the flashlight on their phone on and hold it up.

"We were standing in front of all these lights. It was incredible."

Backstage they were introduced to the group and TCT patron Roger Daltrey.

Sara said: "Our jaws just about dropped to the floor when we saw Gary Barlow."

Molly joked: "You should have seen the state of her."

Image copyright Sara Millar
Image caption Sara took this selfie with Take That's Mark Owen

The girls also met Simon Cowell at the Britain's Got Talent auditions in Manchester. He was so impressed by the teenagers he invited them to one of the live semi-finals.

Sara said: "We got some time to chat to Simon and we were telling him about our fundraising ball and he said: 'I'll tell you what girls. I'll kick off the fundraising.'

"He has made a very healthy personal pledge.

"He is perceived to be this villain but he is actually so lovely. He was really compassionate."

Cowell has also donated an auction prize for their Every Thank You Counts ball in Glasgow on Saturday.

Image copyright Molly Cuddihy
Image caption The girls also met Who frontman and Teenage Cancer Trust patron Roger Daltrey

On the night, the girls - who hope to raise more than £100,000 - will pay tribute to the consultants, doctors, nurses and support workers who cared for them.

Molly said: "Aside from our vision, our big thing with this ball, and hence the name, is to say thank you to the incredible group of people that work in there.

"It is totally a vocation and they go above and beyond to do anything they can for you.

"Even anything they can do that is not clinical. They will do it for you. They gave us our lives back."

Sara added: "Any time we say thank you it does come from the bottom of our hearts."

Image caption Prof Brenda Gibson, of the Royal Hospital for Children, praised the girls for their fundraising efforts

Prof Brenda Gibson, paediatric haematologist, is full of admiration for the girls and what they want to achieve.

She said: "I think they are rather spectacular young ladies who have coped very well with a lot of what they have had to go through.

"They have seen the advantages of having dedicated space and facilities for their age group and I think it's rather remarkable that they are unselfish enough to want to give that and provide that for another age group."

The ball, which will be compered by Elaine C Smith, is a 700-ticket sell-out.

Prof Gibson added: "It is absolutely amazing what Sara, Molly and, of course, their parents have done.

"We are immensely grateful to them."

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