I Was Given TWO YEARS To LIFE
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Diagnosed with cancer as a teenager, Zoё Szypillo. 23, didn’t thin she’d get to her 17th birthday. But she was never going to give up on her dreams
“Ever since I was eight, I’d dream of becoming a model. Dressed up in my mum’s clothes and high heels, I’d practice catwalk poses I’d seen in fashion shows on television.
“As I approached my teens, my ambition remained unchanged. I told my family that one day I’d be parading in front of the cameras, and they all believed me. They told me I was an attractive girl; I was slim and, with the determination and energy I had then, they made me think I could do it.
“I was 15 and on holiday in Spain with my mum when I found a small lump on my left calf. As it had appeared overnight, Mum though it must be a mosquito bite. But there was something niggling at the back of my mind. I’d read about cancer starting from lumps and was a bit scared.
“When I mentioned my fear to Mum, she told me not to be so ridiculous and that, as always, I was being a drama queen. But I couldn’t relax and enjoy myself.
“By the end of the holiday, the lump had grown to the size of a small grape and started to hurt. When we got home, Mum took me to see a doctor. As he ran his fingers over the bump, he told me it was probably the result of deep bruising and would disappear over time. But over the next few months, the lump almost doubled in size and I felt sick if I touched it.
“Some days it was unbearable. I was really active – I palyed netball for my school and was in the running team – but I had to stop doing both, as every time anyone brushed past me, I was scared they’d hit the lump.
“It had been a year since it had appeared, so I went back to the doctors. He told me I’d need to go the hospital for an MRI scan to find out what it was.
“I was petrified. Something inside me told me the doctors would finally discover my lump was cancerous, but I held it together. As I sat waiting for my results in the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, I clutched Mum’s hand and could feel her shaking. She was more scared than me.
“I remember the doctor calling me in and saying, I’m sorry to saying, ‘I’m sorry to say this Zoё, but the scan has revealed the lump could be soft tissue sarcoma – a rare form of cancer. We’ll need to remove it to…’ The rest is a blur. My head felt it was about to explode with all the questions I had. Would I die? Would I lose all my hair from chemotherapy? I wanted to ask, but I couldn’t get any words out of my mouth.
“Over the next few weeks, as we waited for the operation date, I thought about my future and read everything I could about cancer. It was reassuring to find other people who’d successfully had their lumps removed, but I never came across anyone as young as me, which scared me.
“Within a month, the lump was removed. I was kept in for a few days as another scan was necessary to make sure they’d removed all of it. Although weak from the operation, I was feeling optimistic.
“But six weeks later, my bubble was burst. The scan revealed that the cancer was still there. It meant I’d need to have chemotherapy and another operation to remove the rest of the cancer.
“Although I was devastated, I felt able to get through it all – at least I’d get better. But as I was mustering enough strength to get through the next stage of treatment, the doctors had another shock for me.
“They told me that if this operation wasn’t successful, they’d have no choice but to amputate my whole leg in order to stop the cancer from spreading to the rest of my body. But that wasn’t all. They informed me that if I didn’t respond to the treatment, I could die within two years.
“For the first time since I’d found the lump, I broke down and cried.
“Mum told me to stay strong and focus on my dreams. My ambitions became my driving force and kept me going. I wasn’t prepared to give up.
“But then I remembered the chemo. The doctors had told me all my hair would fall out – including my eyelashes and eyebrows. What chance did I have now of becoming a model? My long, thick, jet-clack hair was my pride and joy. It was so long, I could site on it. I couldn’t picture myself with a bald head and every time I ran my fingers through my hair, I fell to pieces and cried.
“Eventually, I asked my cousin Tracey, who’s a hairdresser, to cut it off. At the time, Victoria Beckham had cropped hair and I loved the style. And, besides, I figured I was going to lose it anyway, so I might as well go for it. I would never have been brave enough before, but what was stopping me now?
“It was pointless. Two days later my hair started falling out in clumps. I found hair all over my pillow and bath towel, and them, one day, as my mum was brushing it, it just came out in her hands. In a matter of weeks, I’d gone from having gorgeous long hair to having none. I didn’t cry: I was just numb. Looking at myself in the mirror, I didn’t recognize my reflection and dreaded the thought of going back to school.
“It was only when I bumped into another girl at the hospital who’d also been diagnosed with cancer that I thought about wearing a wig. She looked beautiful as she walked down the corridor of the hospital, with her long blonde hair cascading across her shoulders; nobody would have known she’d lost all her real hair. So I persuaded my mum to take me shopping.
“We spent hours in the shop, but none of the wigs suited me. Eventually, I opted for one that was similar to my previous style, but it was old-fashioned and, after wearing it once, I gave up. It was itchy and irritating, and nothing like having real hair. Instead, I chose to go out wearing only a scarf over my head. Nobody at school made fun of me; I think they all knew how ill I was.
“While all this was going on, I was also supposed to be studying for my GCSEs, but I couldn’t concentrate. I was too weak from the chemotherapy. And it was hard being with school friends who were making plans for their futures when I didn’t even know if I had one.
“Although I was only 15, I felt more like 80. The chemo made me depressed and I often hallucinated after treatments – I’d wake up and have to block the gap under my bedroom door with pillows, convinced that spiders were waiting to come and crawl all over me. It was horrible.”
“Over the next few months, the only thing that kept me going as I battled against the illness and constant sickness was the thought of achieving my ambitions. And I got a major boost when, despite being ill and having to miss lots of school, I managed to pass my exams at grade C, with an A in PE.
“This spurred me on. I wanted to be a success and look after my family as they had looked after me. Mum had had to give up her job in retail to care for me, and we’d struggled financially. But I knew one day I’d repay her for all her support.
“Just after my 16th birthday, I received the good news that I’d been waiting for. The chemo had worked. The tests for the cancer were clear. I was in remission.
“Something inside me knew the cancer had gone for good. I felt normal for the first time in ages and had the strength to get on with the rest of my life.
“I decided not to return to school, but to find a job. I’d nearly lost my life through cancer, so I wasn’t going to waste any time. I knew exactly what I wanted and was prepared to go out there and get it.
“I started off working as a receptionist for a local company, while I focused on how to get into modeling. Soon afterwards, I landed a modeling contract.
“My boyfriend Ben, who I met at school and have been with for seven years, knew I was worried about the possible rejections.
“So he’d sent a couple of photographs off to an agency. I didn’t know what he’d done until I had a call from the agency, Supermodel UK, saying they thought I looked great and inviting me to a shoot. I wasn’t angry with Ben: I was ecstatic. I realized that luck was finally on my side.
“Since then I’ve appeared in advertisements, modeled for Maxim and FHM, and featured in a music video for the band Undercut. Last your, my agent told me he thought I had the right look for a role in a British-Punjabi Hollywood film, Sajna Ve Sajna. I jumped at the chance to audition for the part of the lead frmale dencer. At last I could prove what I was capable of.
“The shock of facing death can make someone go either way – give up completely or grab every opportunity with both hands and live every day as it comes. I decided to do the latter and show people that, despite everything, I was never prepared to give up on my dreams.”