Laughing eyes with a sparkling smile, combined with a cool sense of focus. These are the qualities that immediately strike you about Olivia Cork. It would certainly not cross your mind that eighteen year old Liv, an ‘A’ Level student from Alsager in Cheshire, had battled against life threatening illness.
At the age of fourteen Olivia Cork noticed a swelling and some pain in her leg which seemed to appear virtually overnight. When antibiotics proved ineffective her GP referred her for hospital tests. The very next day she was diagnosed with bone cancer. Nowadays she praises the swift efficiency of her medical team, but her initial reaction was one of disbelief. She informed me that teenagers are the least likely age group to get cancer, and her immediate thoughts were, “It’s a disease that old people get. Not fourteen year olds.”
Liv’s family were obviously devastated by the news but her friends, being so young, did not even seem to understand what it was. When she tried to explain many either failed to grasp the seriousness of the situation or, even worse, became distant. Thus her life’s most vulnerable moment was fast becoming the loneliest.
Surprisingly the cancer itself did not make Liv feel poorly. The treatment did that, and it was dramatic. The safest course of action was to amputate her leg, and I cannot even begin to imagine the emotional blow inflicted on one so young. This was followed by eleven months of “Nasty” chemo therapy which left her feeling permanently drained and nauseous. It suppressed her immune system making her susceptible to chest infections, blisters and general pain.
She laughed as she told me about the day she ate a dodgy burger which made her vomit. It was a pleasure to have nausea that could actually be relieved with a good chuck, as opposed to the lingering nausea of the treatment. Liv was treated in a ward especially allocated to young people aged thirteen to twenty four, receiving tremendous moral support from her peers and from knowing she was not alone. Apparently there is a greater survival rate amongst young people in this environment of camaraderie.
Her lowest and saddest moments occurred when enduring chemo therapy after amputation, and losing some of her new friends to cancer. However, she never recalls feeling depressed or helpless for she always knew that she would beat it. “I like a challenge,” she said with that beaming smile. One of the worst things was seeing her wonderfully caring family suffer while coping with fear and inevitable strain, but this inspired her to become stronger. “I had to keep going for them,” she said.
Liv remembered the particular boost given to her by her brother who was, “Just great.” It followed that all of that love, expert care and iron will paid off when the day came that she was finally given the all clear. For most people it would be the culmination of their story, but for Liv it was just the beginning.
Nearly three years on she is still in the clear and feeling great. She is also on a mission to increase awareness over cancer in young people, and this has saved at least one life already. Liv is part of a group working for the Teenage Cancer Trust, and has helped raise £100,000 from two events so far. One event was a fashion show involving participants from ten schools. The other was a 1980’s themed ball. Wish I’d have known – I could have gone as I am. One of the young volunteers had his own awareness sharpened by the experience and, as a result, sought medical attention for his own symptoms. It led to an early diagnosis and another happy ending.
Nine months ago Liv got into swimming here at Alsager Leisure Centre. In her usual style of never doing things by half measures she now trains with the Bridgestone swimming club for thirteen hours a week over seven gruelling sessions. She said, “Its hard work but I enjoy it. Apart from at 6:00 am when my coach is barking orders at me.” She has true respect for her coach Mike who takes no prisoners and has the loveable tyrant qualities inherent in all good trainers. The hard work is bearing fruit because Liv has already achieved a place in the disabled North West Team. In addition she spends so much time at the gym, in which I coach, that I think we need to buy her a kettle and a camp bed. So impressive is her progress that she recently donned swimming costume to feature in a film about young cancer survivors, for Macmillan Cancer Support.
I asked Liv if she was aiming for the Olympics, at which point she displayed the sensible fortitude that got her through her illness. “You wouldn’t assume an able bodied person was aiming for the Olympics just because they did a sport,” she said. I had to admit she was right, and it alerted me to the fact that I had made a pre judgement. We are all prejudiced and ignorant in some ways. I told her that I considered I’d rightfully had my wrist smacked, and she smiled forgivingly. She then explained she was taking it one step at a time with realistic goals. She is this weekend in the qualifying stages for the internationals!
We all need role models to inspire our endeavours, and Liv’s hero is the remarkable Stephen Sutton. She was fortunate enough to meet the young man whose selfless courage serves as an example to us all, and cherishes the photo she has of them side by side.
Looking to the future, Liv hopes to go into nursing and to specialise in teenage and young adult oncology. I know she will succeed as she always does. Nobody could possibly have more to give, and there could be no finer symbol of hope to young people in their time of need. Her message is simple; “Stay positive. You will get through it.” Now we have read that dark chapter of her early life we can sit back and enjoy the bright riveting ones to follow. Next time I am being a weekend warrior and scrambling up some mountain with a rucksack while telling myself what a brave boy I am, I will be mindful of this; to some people bravery is nothing special. It is just a way of life.
Olivia opened our new fitness suite at Alsager Leisure Centre on 22nd January 2015. We have been so inspired by her efforts that we provided her with a year’s free Everybody membership. To see pictures and find out more about our new gym read the article here: everybody.org.uk/alsager-leisure-centre-opens-new-fitness-suite/
Article by Chris Garton, Fitness Advisor at Alsager Leisure Centre
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