Yorkshire teenager refusing to be defined by cancer battle

Selby teenager Francesca Taylor-Draper, now in recovery from cancer. The experience, she says, has changed her outlook on life. Image: Gary Longbottom, The Yorkshire Post
Selby teenager Francesca Taylor-Draper, now in recovery from cancer. The experience, she says, has changed her outlook on life. Image: Gary Longbottom, The Yorkshire Post

Even the word cancer was enough to send a sharp shiver down teenager Francesca Taylor-Draper's spine. She couldn't bear to hear her diagnosis aloud.

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Francesca Taylor-Draper underwent four stages of treatment to overcome blood cancer. Image supplied.

Francesca Taylor-Draper underwent four stages of treatment to overcome blood cancer. Image supplied.

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At just 14 she had been reduced to a 'bag of bones' in a hospital bed, she says, as the chemotherapy ripped away every shred of her self-worth.

But a year on, she refuses to be known as 'that girl with cancer'. The illness, she adds, does not define her. It has only made her stronger.

Francesca Taylor-Draper, from Selby, who battled blood cancer. At her lowest point, she lost her hair and her weight dropped to below four stone.

Francesca Taylor-Draper, from Selby, who battled blood cancer. At her lowest point, she lost her hair and her weight dropped to below four stone.

"All I wanted was to go back to how I was, I just wanted to be normal," she says. "I wouldn't go back now. I see that person, she was so naive.

"I wouldn't erase what I've been through," she adds. "I wouldn't wish it on anyone, but it's helped me become the person I am. I know now that you can't take anything for granted."

There is an immense strength of will in Francesca, now 15 and in recovery. When we meet, at her family's Victorian terrace in Selby, she is composed. Poised, self-assured, articulate.

The following day will be her monthly chemotherapy session, all that remains now to keep the cancer away. She mentions it casually, as if it's not a big deal.

Francesca Taylor-Draper, aged 15 and from Selby, hopes to challenge taboos around talking about cancer. Image: Gary Longbottom.

Francesca Taylor-Draper, aged 15 and from Selby, hopes to challenge taboos around talking about cancer. Image: Gary Longbottom.

Cancer battle

In May last year, Francesca's world was fractured when she was diagnosed with blood cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

It started with a purple rash, an ache in her legs, which was dismissed as growing pains.

When the pain became too great, her mother took her to A&E. Later that night, after midnight, there was a knock on the family door.

There was an ambulance car waiting for Francesca. Blood tests had shown something terribly wrong, and the teenager was to be admitted to hospital immediately.

"The doctor sat on my bed and said 'there's traces of cancer in your blood'," she said. "I felt like I'd been winded.

"I couldn't hear the doctors speak about it. I couldn't say 'cancer', I couldn't say the word.

"I remember thinking this doesn't happen to people like me, to my family."

Treatment

What followed was a whirlwind. Chemotherapy started within days, following a transfer to Leeds General Infirmary.

"I remember asking, 'am I going to die?" says Francesca. "They said they would do everything they could to make sure that doesn't happen'.

"If it had been a week later I probably wouldn't have survived."

Francesca was to undergo four stages of treatment over eight months, suffering numerous infections and sepsis, a blood clot on the brain.

It hurt to move, she says, to eat. Every time she opened her eyes, the room would spin with the overwhelming nausea that occupied her every waking moment.

Sapped of strength, she had lived in fear that this world was all there was.

"I was so dependent on everybody else," she says. "I was in so much pain, I was just bones in a bed, I couldn't move.

"I used to think this was it, for the rest of my life," she adds. "That I was going to be known as the girl who had cancer forever. It's really not the case."

Recovery

On December 16 last year, Francesca had her last intense chemotherapy. On January 8, she went into what is known as 'maintenance', meaning she is in recovery.

Today, Francesca is well. She is starting her GCSEs at Selby High, in the hopes of one day studying criminology.

This summer, she went on a sailing trip off the west coast of Scotland with the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust, something she never could have imagined.

She comes away from her cancer, she says, with a new outlook and a new world.

"There is a stigma around cancer," she says. "You never see the survivors, you see the bad stories - the worst case scenarios. That's not always what it's like.

"I can't really remember the bad bits," she adds. "I remember all the people I've met through it, the friends and doctors and nurses.

"Everyone is doing their best to make the experience, if not easy, then a better one.

"It's not a positive experiences, but there are so many positives that have come from it. And so many ways it can make you a better person."