'My main goal is to walk again'

14th October 2005 at 01:00
Five years ago, at the age of 11, Nicole Dryburgh was diagnosed with cancer. She pulled through, only to be struck down by a brain haemorrhage which left her blind and with limited mobility. Now, with the aid of a laptop and her two dogs Molly and Daizy, Nicole has written a remarkable account of her illness

There are rules to reading this.

Do not give me pity; I don't need it.

Do not feel sorry for me; because I'm not sorry.

Do not give me sympathy; I don't want it.

Do not think poor girl; because I'm not.

Do not cry; you'll make the pages wet.

Stick to these rules and we will get along great.

My name is Nicole Dryburgh and I was born on February 9, 1989. I don't like my name because no one can pronounce it properly. It is said like Edinburgh. I was born in Scotland and moved to Kent when I was seven. I live with my Mum and my brother, Lee, in a bungalow by the sea at Seasalter, near Whitstable. We have two dogs, Molly and Daizy. Molly arrived in September 2000 and Daizy arrived in June 2004. I talk to both my dogs as if they are human.

My favourite colour is pink. Everything I have is pink. I am a girlie girl.

I don't like orange Smarties or orange chocolate. I am a very positive person and always laughing. I don't let my disabilities get me down.

I am quite a stubborn person and very determined. If I want something badly enough, I work at it and get there in the end. My main goal is to walk again. I know it won't happen overnight but miracles can happen. I never give up on myself and that's what keeps me going. I started to write my diary on September 17, 2004, but here is my story before I began

The start

In February 2000, when I was 11, I was on holiday in Scotland. I was in the swimming pool and decided to go down the flume one last time. I think I banged my arm on the side and I got instant pain down my right arm. The pain was there on and off for the rest of the holiday. I just took paracetamol. No one could have predicted what would happen in the next few months.

Every time I went back to the doctor, the pain had got worse. My GP then referred me to someone else. He did the normal tests and got me to do some stretches. I told him I used to do 12 hours a week of gymnastics but had recently stopped. He asked if I could still do some of the moves. I could, so in the middle of this tiny room I was bending backwards and doing all sorts of things. He said I shouldn't be able to do this if my arm hurt.

I remember being asked if anything was bothering me at school and Mum was asked if everything was OK at home. I thought people didn't believe me and that I was attention-seeking. That annoyed me and I felt like saying, "What is the point in telling anyone if no one believes me?" Mum always did, though. The original thought was that I had whiplash, but it turned out not to be that. My physiotherapist said I should go for a scan, which showed a tumour.

I had to go for blood tests in London on the last day of primary school, which upset me. On the last day everyone gets their shirts signed by their friends. I was allowed to get mine done a day earlier so I wouldn't miss out. People asked me why I had to have my shirt signed a day early and I couldn't answer them because I didn't really know why myself. The blood tests involved needles and I had to be bribed with a McDonald's. The next thing I remember was being told I had a growth.

I can remember telling my friends at school about the growth. A boy in my class said, "Nicole has a tumour." I shouted at him and said, "It's not a tumour, it's a growth!" How stupid was I? I then looked at my teacher. I remember the look she gave me. I understand it now. It was a look of pity.

I knew she wanted to say something and what the boy had said was true, and that it must be a bad thing.

On August 7, 2000, I had an operation on the top of my spine. I was taken to King's College hospital in London the day before to get prepared for it.

I met Chris Chandler, a consultant neurosurgeon, that night. I wasn't nervous. I found it kind of exciting. That was because I didn't realise how important it was. In the morning, I had to put a hospital gown on. I wasn't happy as I didn't know why it didn't shut properly at the back.

It only started getting a bit scary when we went through some doors to get to the theatre room. It smelt different and really clean and sterile. I went into the room where the operation was going to happen. I looked around and there were lots of machines: a tray with shiny silver scalpels, scissors and whatever else they use. The anaesthetist came and stuck sticky pads on my chest to monitor my heart rate. Then I was given a gas mask and told to count to 10. The gas mask smelt of strawberry to begin with, and then it turned into normal-smelling anaesthetic. Mum, who was next door, cried then because she knew that there was a chocolate-smelling one that I would probably have preferred.

The next day Chris Chandler came round to tell Mum and me that I had a type of cancer called a peripheral nerve sheaf tumour. I did not understand because I hadn't heard of cancer before. So it didn't bother me. The surgeon was unable to remove the entire tumour because it was so close to my spinal cord. The tumour was pushing on the nerves that went down my right arm, and that's why my arm had hurt and caused the confusion.

I had eight weeks of radiotherapy at the Royal Marsden hospital in Surrey to remove the rest of the tumour. It was quite tiring because we had to travel from Whitstable to Surrey every day for eight weeks. I finished on December 1, which meant I missed the first eight weeks of secondary school.

We gave the radiographers a big tin of chocolates to say thank you and my leaving present from them was an advent calendar. I also got a Winnie the Pooh certificate to say I had finished my radiotherapy treatment.

I have a box that I keep all this stuff in. It is my memory box. In it, I have the sticker chart, certificates for the radiotherapy and for my operation, the hospital wristband I wore when I had my operation, my signed primary school shirt and good luck letters from my friends. I have other things in there that are not to do with hospitals.

Before I had my operation, my Auntie Lesley said she wanted to buy me something. My Mum said I had everything I needed for going into hospital, so Lesley said she would get me a rabbit. Then she said I couldn't have just one because it would be lonely, so I needed two.

Knowing I was getting the rabbits kept me going in hospital. They were from a rescue home. I was glad to get them from there instead of a pet shop. I got a boy and a girl, Nutmeg and Sage. I didn't like the name Sage, so called him Womble because he was grey and fluffy. I kept the name Nutmeg because she was that colour.

They were there when I came home from my radiotherapy, so I enjoyed seeing them at the end of the day. They were lovely rabbits and Molly loved them too. In 2001 Womble died from flystrike. Nutmeg died in October 2002 from myxomatosis. I noticed she had red puffy eyes, so we took her to the vet.

After three days she stopped eating and the vet said it was best to put her down. I don't agree with animals suffering, so I said yes.

Nicole Dryburgh, 16, attends St Nicholas' special school in Canterbury, Kent, part-time. She also receives some home tuition, supported by the East Kent Hospital School Service. She has learnt to touch-type on a regular keyboard and uses JAWS, a screen-reader software programme, on her laptop.

As she types, a voice reads the letters and words she is writing; using playback she can listen to what she has written.l See next week's issue for Nicole's column, which will run for the rest of term

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today