“Am I going to die?”
15-year-old Down minor footballer Leah Scholes was asking this question when a doctor told her she had stage 2 ovarian cancer.
Scholes suffers from a congenital heart defect known as pulmonary artery stenosis, which means one of the valves in his heart closes. Her first heart operation was when she was a baby and her second could be next year.
The condition also led to an irregular heartbeat, but Scholes was never deterred, insisting women’s football was the perfect outlet.
In April, a month after celebrating his 18th birthday, Scholes was the super-sub of the minors Down, scoring a goal with his first touch to help them clinch the Ulster title.
It’s been a remarkable journey to get to this point, starting with heart surgery when she was just three weeks old.
“Football keeps my heart healthy”
“The NHS absolutely loves me, as you can see, across many departments,” Scholes jokes.
“I have had heart disease since I was a baby, but according to doctors, football keeps me healthy and my heart healthy.”
Her parents, Cathy and John, are keen sports fans and it was always likely that Leah would eventually play women’s football, having started camogie when she was just six years old.
She became a star for Rostrevor after the family moved to the South Armagh area, and Down called it quits in 2018 after shining in her club’s minors.
Once again, she thrived on this stage until the end of a training session where she was zapped of all her energy.
“I got to the last drill and I remember it like it was yesterday, I had no energy, I couldn’t even kick the ball. It was like someone took my batteries away and left them aside.
“I remember getting in the car afterwards and just sleeping. Mum and dad were like ‘that’s not very you’. I could usually practice until the cows came home.
“That’s when I thought ‘something is wrong here’. I went to the doctor, had a scan and it was clear. I had pain in the area abdomen and I kept going to the doctor and they said “nothing is showing, your blood is clear, your scans are clear”.
“That was the thing that we couldn’t figure out. At one point I was told it was growing pains. I was like, ‘I’m telling you now, it’s not growing pains. of growth’.”
They changed her diet, but as she remained unwell, her parents sought further insight and Scholes went for another CT scan. This time a 30 cm cyst appeared.
She was rushed to A&E but the significance of the find was lost on Scholes, who was determined to get out in time to play a minor game for Rostrevor.
This argument persisted until former Down co-captain Caolan Mooney made the phone call.
“He was like, ‘don’t be so stupid, you only have one body, you only have one life. Remove the cyst and I’ll help you recover,” Scholes said.
“Caolan is a good friend of Mom, and he used to play for Rostrevor. I didn’t listen to anyone but I listened to him.”
“Can we delay chemo so I can play football?”
Scholes showed up to the game, but to sit on the sidelines and watch, as agreed, while her doctors began to map out her future.
The cyst was removed in July 2019, but her parents thinking the worst was over, another bombshell awaited her.
Two weeks after her surgery, Scholes was back in the hospital to have her staples removed when the results came back and she was told she had cancer.
“The cyst was so big and there was no room for it to grow, it leaked and there were cancer cells in the cyst, that’s how I got cancer,” said said Scholes.
“I’m deprived of my health, I haven’t really come out into the open, but with cancer it was different. I was like ‘I don’t really want to tell anyone, but mum was like: ‘ no, you need to tell your friends because you will see changes in your appearance, more than likely’.”
Scholes went for further tests at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children, where they discussed the course of action from there. And there she learned that the doctors didn’t know if she would survive this.
“I was like ‘so you kind of handed me a stopwatch here and told me to get on with your life, I might hit stop at some point,'” Leah explains.
“So in that moment it was almost like a wake up call. I was like, okay, so I have God knows how long and it was kind of making the most of everything because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Scholes continued to play with his club, while his chemotherapy date was postponed until November. She was named captain of Rostrevor’s minor side ahead of their league campaign and inspired them to victory game after game.
“Before I started my chemo, I was talking to my oncologist. We were about to start the championship and I said to him, ‘is there any chance we can push this back so I can play?’
“He said, ‘play your first game well and see how it goes’. We won that game and then we got to the quarter-finals. He said, ‘good Leah, can we start chemo?’
“Then we got to the semi-finals, I said, ‘it’s true, we still have a game here’, and then we got to the finals and won the championship. The week after, I I started chemo.”
Scholes ended up doing eight months of chemotherapy, she was supposed to have four sessions but it doubled. And although his round of chemotherapy lasted nearly a year, it never dampened his spirits.
She went to school when she felt able and even went to training with Rostrevor, participating in the non-contact sessions.
For now, she is tested every six months. She recently had an MRI and is awaiting the results while waiting for her summer vacation.
“I’m going to take a year off and do photography”
Leah hopes that telling her story might prove to be inspirational to people in the midst of similar struggles.
“I just want to help someone have a different mindset, maybe they can because someone else did something similar to what I did, or even worse than me.
“If it motivates someone or raises awareness or something, then that’s great.”
With the 18-year-old currently qualifying as a barista, her summer plans will include a part-time job at the local cafe and one of her other passions, backed up by her trusty Canon camera.
“I just finished my bachelor’s degree, I’m going to take a year off and do photography,” Scholes said.
“It’s something that has always interested me. I didn’t really want to go to school for another year, I wanted to explore the world around me.
“I like to do action shots for the football club and did a couple of them for an Armagh game recently. I want to shoot at Croke Park one day, if I could get a job in sport, I would do it at the drop of a hat.”