AN ACTRESS whose life once hung in the balance is celebrating ten years of being cancer free.
Aged just 13, Melissa Cavanagh, of Ashbrooke, was dealt a devastating blow when she was told she had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a rare cancer that develops in the lymphatic system.
While most girls her age were busy with homework and listening to boy bands, the former Thornhill School pupil had to endure eight months of intense chemotherapy and deal with the trauma of losing her long hair.
A decade later, she’s a healthy 24-year-old on the cusp of embarking on a career on the stage.
Surviving cancer gave Melissa a zest for life which has seen her throw herself into performing arts. And she uses her talent for singing to help give back to the Teenage Cancer Trust, performing at the charity’s concerts and sharing the stage with the likes of Paul Weller and Jools Holland.
“I was diagnosed with cancer on January 29, 2004 and was told I was in remission almost exactly a year later,” she recalls.
She added: “The only thing I related to cancer at that age was old people and death, it’s not something you ever expect to be told at 13. I just didn’t think it happened to people of my age. I remember seeing my mam upset and I think that’s what upset me most.”
Melissa began to feel unwell the summer before her diagnosis, experiencing a lump in her throat, tiredness, rapid weight loss and searing pain at the top of her legs.
Doctors initially thought she may have had a swollen gland, but once they realised the severity of her illness the cancer was advanced in her body. She underwent eight months of chemotherapy at Newcastle’s RVI hospital, as well as a month of radiotherapy, which proved successful.
Melissa said: “I was told I was in remission a year later, which was such a huge relief, and then five years later I got the all clear. Now I’ve reached the ten year mark it’s even more significant, as when you reach that stage it means the cancer is very unlikely to come back.
“I remember sitting on the ward one day after treatment and thinking ‘If I make it this far I’m going to have a huge celebration’”
Now Melissa is planning to do just that and is preparing to have a party with friends and family.
She is also gearing up for her latest stage role, as Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray at the Tyne Theatre, Newcastle, in April.
“Ever since I saw the film in 2007 I’ve wanted to play this role,” she said. “I’m a bigger girl and Tracy is a role where you have to be a bigger girl to play her. It’s a dream role.
“I love singing and dancing and I hope to make it to the London stage one day.”
Melissa says having cancer in her formative years shaped her views on life as an adult.
“It’s taught me so much,” she said. “Not just because of my cancer, but the other children I met on the ward. One year I went to the funerals of four people under 20 who all died from the disease. It made me realise how very lucky I am, and how short life can be.”
l Hairspray is at Tyne Theatre, Newcastle, from April 13-18. Tickets, priced from £9-£18, are available from Tel. 0844 2491 000 or visit www.tynetheatreandoperahouse.uk.