A teenager who missed a year of school while receiving treatment for cancer sat all her GCSEs whilst undergoing chemotherapy – despite being admitted to hospital halfway through her exams.
Sixteen-year-old Aliyah Nadim, of Derby, was diagnosed with T-Cell Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2016 after an MRI scan revealed an inoperable tumour behind her tummy, pressing on her spine.
She has endured 18 months of rigorous chemotherapy, which has caused her hair to fall out twice and left her with diabetes, nerve pain from vincristine footdrop and avascular necrosis a painful condition which means the bone tissue in her joints is dying.
Yet, despite spending months in hospital, the Bemrose School pupil was determined to return to lessons as soon as possible and a year after her diagnosis she was back at her desk as frequently as possible, even staying behind after school for revision sessions.
Despite still receiving chemotherapy and a cocktail of other medication, Aliyah managed to sit all her GCSEs – an astonishing 22 exams – despite vomiting during one and passing out at the end of another.
Aliyah said: “Obviously I was devastated when I was told I had cancer and it felt like the end of the world. I didn’t want to lose my hair, I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me and I didn’t want to miss school.
“It was hard trying to revise when you have missed a year of school and I was still having weekly blood tests, regular transfusions and lots of strong tablets, including chemo, which make me feel poorly.
“During the exams I was allowed breaks, I didn’t take any, although I did vomit 25 minutes before the end of my physics exam.
“After two weeks of exams I came home and had a nosebleed and passed out. I was admitted to hospital and they discovered my liver wasn’t functioning properly and I had an infection. So, I was also on antibiotics for the rest of the exams as well as everything else.
“I definitely won’t have done as well as I could have done, but hopefully I will have done enough to be able to do A-Levels.”
Aliyah first started feeling unwell in 2015 when she experienced intermittent discomfort in her leg and back pain, which doctors initially put down to constipation.
She was eventually sent for an MRI scan and, when the hospital asked her to return the same evening, her family feared the worse. Doctors confirmed that Aliyah had cancer and she was seen by an oncologist at the Queen’s Medical Centre, in Nottingham, the very next day.
The leg pain was being caused by a tumour pressing on her spine, putting pressure on the nerves at the bottom of her back. Three biopsies revealed that although the mass could not be operated on, intensive chemotherapy might help to shrink it.
During the treatment, which is currently on course to finish in February next year, Aliyah has endured more than 30 lumbar punctures, 12 MRI scans and countless blood transfusions, as well as an operation to put in a central line, allowing nurses to take bloods and give medication intravenously.
Yet, despite the invasive procedures and toxic medications, it was the hair loss which effected Aliyah most deeply.
Aliyah said: “I started on the chemotherapy straight away and I remember lying there looking at the first dose crying because I knew it was going to make my lovely long hair fall out.
“The chemo made me feel woozy, vomit, gave me headaches and made me hurt all over my body. And I would wake up each morning to find more and more hair on my pillow.
“One morning a massive amount came away in my hair brush, I knew instantly because I could feel the cold air on my bald head. Surprisingly, it grew back again but when it was about an inch long it started falling out again, so I made my dad shave it off.
“When I went back to school I got a wig to begin with, but it never looked quite right. Eventually I swapped to a hat and then one day I was too hot, so I just took it off in class.
“The whole room just went completely silent. I knew everyone was staring at me and I couldn’t stand them to be feeling sorry for me. But everyone got used to it pretty quickly.
“My hair has grown back again now, and it’s grown back curly which is a complete shock.”
Throughout her treatment Aliyah has been supported by her 18-year-old brother Ihtisham, sister Alimah, 20, and her taxi driver dad Mohammed has taken her to every single hospital appointment, along with mum Yasmin.
Yasmin said: “It was important to Aliyah to get back to school, both for her education and socially, to be among her friends. She is a very brave girl and nobody is really aware of how poorly she has been.
“I would be up all night massaging her because of the pain and then she would spent 30 minutes putting on make-up before school so that people couldn’t see how ill she was.
“Whether she has done well in her exams or not doesn’t matter to us, because she has tried her very best. We are incredibly proud of her. Exams are important but not as important as her health. But we are very proud of the effort she has put in regardless of the results.”
Staff at Aliyah’s school in Uttoxeter New Road are equally impressed. At a recent prize giving event she was presented with the top accolade, the Linda Gill Award for Commitment, Caring and Contribution.
Executive headteacher Neil Wilkinson said: “Aliyah is a shining example of courage, fortitude and determination and she deserves every success that comes her way.
“She has reduced staff to tears on more than one occasion with her resilience and positivity – few of us would remain so stoic in the face of her diagnosis. But instead of letting her illnesses define her Aliyah has been quite determined to continue with her normal life – and education – as much as possible.
“She is a tremendous role model, who we are extremely proud to have taught, and I know all the staff here at The Bemrose School wish her every success for the future.”