A student who revised for exams while having chemotherapy has passed her A Levels with flying colours – and landed a place at a top university to study biomedical science after being inspired to become a doctor by the care she received.
When Kira O'Connor Fitzgerald, 18, felt a mysterious chest pain during her GCSEs in June 2018, she thought it was anxiety, only for two lumps to spring up on her neck over the summer, leading to a diagnosis of stage three Hodgkin lymphoma – an uncommon blood cancer - just after she started sixth form.
Teachers gave her the option to resit the year at a later date but, not wanting to fall behind, the determined teenager, of Swindon, Wiltshire, continued to study - often pouring over notes and flashcards in hospital, during her grueling treatment.
Then, when the Covid-19 pandemic meant her A level exams were cancelled, Kira was forced to leave school and shield, as chemotherapy had compromised her immune system, making her vulnerable.
But yesterday, Kira, who is now cancer free, discovered her hard work had paid off and received A, A, B, on her results - calculated by exam regulator Ofqual using a special statistical model - gaining her a coveted place at St George's University, south London.
Kira O'Connor Fitzgerald (pictured left during cancer treatment, and right, recently), 18, of Swindon, Wiltshire, was diagnosed with stage three Hodgkin lymphoma – an uncommon blood cancer - just after she started sixth form
Thankfully, after receiving her A level results on Thursday, Kira (pictured with her results), who revised for exams while having chemotherapy, passed with flying colours
Despite her youth, fortitude was already part of Kira's make up - having lost her mother Maureen aged just 48, in November 2016 to sepsis - and with her father, Michael, 50, living over 2,000 miles away in Cyprus.
Speaking about her results, Kira, who lives with her brother, Mikie, 28, a gas company worker, said: 'I'm over the moon. The moment I opened my results and saw that I'd got into university was amazing.
WHAT IS HODGKIN'S LYMPHOMA?
Hodgkin's lymphoma is a type of cancer that starts in the white blood cells.
It affects around 1,950 people each year in the UK.
A common early symptom is having a painless swelling in the armpits, neck and groin.
Some people also experience heavy night sweating, extreme weight loss, itching, shortness of breath and coughing.
Hodgkin's lymphoma is most common between the ages of 20 and 24, and 75 and 79.
It has been linked to people with lowered immunity, a family history of the condition, smokers and those who are overweight.
Treatment may include chemotherapy, radiotherapy, steroids and stem cell or bone marrow transplants.
Source: Cancer Research UK
'It's everything I've worked for over the past two years coming true. I'm going down the biomedical route, which means I'll eventually transfer to medicine and end up with two degrees in six years. I'm so happy to be one step closer to my goal of becoming a doctor.'
Growing up, Kira was always a high achiever, often scoring straight As in exams and showing a natural aptitude for science - making it no surprise to her parents when, in Year 10, aged 14, she decided that she wanted to one day study medicine.
'It was either medicine, or drama,' she said. 'They're very different careers, but I loved them both.'
But in November 2016, tragedy struck when Kira's beloved mother Maureen, who was separated from her father, died of sepsis, which occurs when the body mistakenly attacks itself in response to an infection.
Although she was lost in grief, the remarkable youngster still pushed on with her schooling and was ready to sit her GCSEs in June 2018, alongside her classmates.
Then, on the morning of one of her exams, she woke up with a chest pain, which became so severe that she was eventually taken to casualty at Great Western Hospital, Swindon.
'The doctors there thought it was anxiety over my exams, too, so I was sent home to rest,' she explained. 'About a month later, I found a small lump on my neck.
'Being young at the time, I thought, "I've just finished my GCSEs, the doctors told me I was fine, I'll ignore it – it's probably nothing"'.
Then, just after she started in sixth form in September 2018, Kira felt a second, larger lump and decided to see her GP.
Teachers gave her the option to resit the year at a later date but, not wanting to fall behind, the determined teenager (pictured) continued to study - often pouring over notes and flashcards in hospital, during her grueling treatment
Then, when the Covid-19 pandemic meant her A level exams were cancelled, Kira (pictured left during treatment, and right, after) was forced to leave school and shield, as chemotherapy had compromised her immune system, making her vulnerable
She continued: 'Cancer wasn't mentioned at that stage, but the doctor told me it was serious. Being a 16-year-old with no clue, I went home and Googled what the possible outcome could be.
'It was the worst thing I could have done, because it came up with all these pages about cancer.'
Next, Kira had an ultrasound scan, with doctors calling her back just two hours later to tell her they suspected she had cancer.
A biopsy followed and her official diagnosis of stage three Hodgkin lymphoma, meaning it had spread to both sides of her diaphragm, was confirmed on 12 November, 2018 – a day after the anniversary of her mother's death.
According to the charity CLIC Sargent, who have given Kira unwavering support, only 120 15 to 19 year olds are diagnosed with this form of cancer in the UK each year, the first sign of which is often a painless swelling of either one, or a group of glands.
But yesterday, Kira, who is now cancer free, discovered her hard work had paid off and received A, A, B, on her results. Pictured, some of the snapchats she would post while in hospital
Her great results have gained Kira (pictured above) a coveted place at St George's University, south London
'It was very surreal and I think my reaction was quite surreal, too,' she said. 'I instantly thought, "Okay, so what happens next?"
'As strange as it sounds, I wasn't upset for me. I was upset for my family. I had not long lost my mum and I didn't want to put them through more heartache. Calling my brother to tell him was one of the worst moments. That made it all the more real.'
Then, before she began treatment, Kira faced the difficult task of telling her teachers and friends what had happened.
She said: 'I was sure I didn't want anything to affect my education, so I went back to school like normal. I walked into my form tutor and said, "I have something I need to tell you." I just blurted it out like it was nothing. He was so shocked.'
Turning down offers to resit her AS Level exams at a later date, Kira then juggled school and chemotherapy, which she had for six months, from November 2018 to April 2019 - documenting her journey on Snapchat and Instagram.
Despite her youth, fortitude was already part of Kira's make up - having lost her mother Maureen aged just 48, in November 2016 to sepsis - and with her father, Michael, 50, living over 2,000 miles away in Cyprus. Pictured, Kira wearing a wig
Speaking about her results, Kira (pictured), who lives with her brother, Mikie, 28, a gas company worker, said: 'I'm over the moon. The moment I opened my results and saw that I'd got into university was amazing'
She continued: 'I documented a lot on social media, because it was really overwhelming replying to the 20 to 30 messages I'd get every day. It was a way of letting people know how I was doing, but also showing them the reality of cancer treatment.
'A lot of people told me they had no idea just how much chemotherapy can affect you. They thought I'd just throw up a couple of times and that'd be it, when actually, I would be bedridden for a good week every month.
'The culmination of physical and mental side-effects was a lot to cope with and I was very up and down. Some days, I'd feel I could take on the world, and others, just getting up in the morning felt like the hardest thing to do.'
For the whole of Year 12 – her AS Level year – Kira studied at home or in hospital.
She continued: 'It was nice to be able to do something a bit normal in amongst everything else. I mostly studied at home, but if I felt up to it, I'd bring my laptop to hospital and revise while having chemo.'
Growing up, Kira (pictured when her hair was growing back after chemotherapy) was always a high achiever, often scoring straight As in exams and showing a natural aptitude for science
But in November 2016, tragedy struck when Kira's beloved mother Maureen, who was separated from her father, died of sepsis, which occurs when the body mistakenly attacks itself in response to an infection. Pictured right, Kira wearing a wig
The excellent care she received helped her to decide that medicine, rather than drama, should be her vocation and, inspired by her medical team, she became determined to be a doctor herself.
'I want to help people in the same way I was helped, but it also looks like such an interesting job,' she said. 'Whenever the doctors would speak in medical jargon, or list all the medicines I would be taking, I'd note down what they said and look it up afterwards.
'I liked learning about it. Viewing what was happening through a scientific lens meant I could separate myself from it all slightly, and give myself room to process. It also meant I could translate for my family, if they had no idea what had just been said.'
After finishing chemotherapy in April 2019, Kira threw herself into full-time revision, sitting her AS Levels in biology, chemistry and drama two months later.
But sadly, the results – C, D, D – were not what she had aimed for.
'I've always been a high achiever. I got As in every test I had during treatment, so I was devastated,' she said. 'I didn't want anybody to see me upset, because I knew they'd tell me that, after what I'd been through, it was understandable I hadn't done as well as I'd wanted.
Although she was lost in grief, the remarkable youngster (pictured) still pushed on with her schooling and was ready to sit her GCSEs in June 2018, alongside her classmates
'I felt like I'd let myself down – like the past few months were for nothing. I didn't want to speak to anyone about it, as I couldn't see a way of it changing.
'Getting my grades back up to what they needed to be so I could be a doctor seemed impossible.'
Thankfully, help arrived in the form of Kira's CLIC Sargent social worker, who had been assigned to her by the charity on the day she began chemotherapy.
Sensing that she was struggling to process the emotional toll her diagnosis and treatment were having, he arranged for her to have some therapy.
By talking things through, she accepted that, while her grades were not what she had wanted, the fact that she had sat any exams at all was an incredible achievement.
Then, on the morning of one of her exams, Kira (pictured) woke up with a chest pain, which became so severe that she was eventually taken to casualty at Great Western Hospital, Swindon
Buoyed by CLIC Sargent's support, she threw herself back into her studies after returning to sixth form in September 2019 – by which time she was cancer free - for her A Level year.
Happily, in her mock exams, she had vastly improved, scoring A, B, C in chemistry, biology and drama.
'I wouldn't have been able to do it without CLIC Sargent,' she said. 'They helped me process everything, and see that any outcome was okay – I'd still done amazingly to keep up with school.'
Her confidence rebuilt, Kira's thoughts turned to her final exams, which were due to take place in June 2020.
Then, in March this year, the government announced that schools would close and exams would be cancelled as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
A biopsy followed and her official diagnosis of stage three Hodgkin lymphoma, meaning it had spread to both sides of her diaphragm, was confirmed on 12 November, 2018 – a day after the anniversary of her mother's death. Pictured, social media posts shared by Kira during her time in hospital
As her immune system is still compromised from chemotherapy, classed as vulnerable, Kira also had to take the extra step of shielding for 12 weeks.
'When the pastoral team at my school told me I had to shield, I kept saying, "I'm fine, I'm fine." But then the tears came,' she recalled. 'I got home and thought to myself, "What now?"
'I know students moan about exams, but I was so disappointed not to sit them. After everything, it was something I was really looking forward to doing, and that chance was taken away.
'I know that, logically, taking exams in the middle of a global pandemic would have been silly, though, so I am happy to be safe and well.'
Along with thousands of other students receiving their specially-calculated results, Kira was delighted to discover on Thursday that she had landed a place at her dream university.
Her current grades are A, B, B - though one B is being appealed and will hopefully rise to an A.
Now, she will be heading off to St George's University in September to study biomedical science with a pathway to medicine - a course that will eventually allow her to become a doctor.
Still cancer free, she continues to be monitored by regular scans.
By sharing her story, she wants to offer hope to young cancer patients and also raise awareness of CLIC Sargent, who helped her in her hour of need.