Down GAA teen opens up about heart defect and cancer diagnosis

Dark humor has been her coping mechanism, while Leah Scholes has always refused to bow to the most discouraging diagnosis.

She was only 15 when her doctor told her she had stage 2 ovarian cancer, which was accompanied by the response, “Am I going to die?” »

Underage player Down turned 18 last March and is currently honing his skills as a Barista. Her summer plans will consist of a part-time job at the local cafe and one of her other passions, backed up by her trusty Canon camera.

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“I just finished my bachelor’s degree, I’m going to take a year off and do photography,” Scholes said.

“It’s something that has always interested me. I didn’t really want to go to school for another year, I wanted to explore the world around me.

“I like to do action shots for the football club and did a few for an Armagh game recently. I want to take pictures at Croke Park one day, if I could get a job in sport, I would do it in a heartbeat.

In April, Scholes was the super-sub for the Miners Down, scoring a goal with his first touch to help them clinch the Ulster title. It’s been a remarkable journey to get to this point, starting with heart surgery when she was just three weeks old.

Scholes has a congenital heart defect known as pulmonary artery stenosis, which means that one of the valves in her heart closes and has stretched it. Her first heart operation was when she was a baby and her second could be next year.

The condition also led to an irregular heartbeat, but Scholes was never deterred, saying women’s football was the perfect outlet.

“The NHS absolutely loves me, as you can see, across many departments,” Scholes jokes.

“I’ve had heart disease since I was a baby, but the way doctors see it is that football keeps me healthy and my heart healthy.”

Her parents, Cathy and John, are keen sports fans and it was always likely that Scholes would eventually play women’s football, having started camogie when she was just six years old.

She became a star for her club, Rostrevor, after the family moved to the South Armagh area, and Down came calling as a teenager.

It was 2018 and Scholes was playing under-14, under-16 and underage with his club when his adopted county asked him to take part in trials.

Again, she thrived on the big stage until the end of a session where she was zapped of all her energy. Alarm bells started ringing.

“I went through the tryouts and after every tryout they were dropping so many girls because there were so many there,” Scholes said.

Leah Scholes with her mum Cathy and dad John, celebrating Rostrevor’s final championship victory in October 2019

“I arrived at the last exercise and I remember it like it was yesterday, I had no energy, I couldn’t even kick the ball. It was like someone took my batteries out and the had left aside.

“I remember getting in the car afterwards and just sleeping. Mom and dad were like ‘that’s not really you.’ I could usually train until the cows came home.

“That’s when I was like ‘something is wrong here.’ I went to the doctor, I had a scan and it was clear I had pain in my abdomen area and I kept going to the doctors and they were like, “nothing does not appear, your blood is clear, your scans are clear”.

“That was the thing that we couldn’t understand. At one point I was told it was growing pains. I was like, I’m telling you now, these aren’t growing pains.

They changed her diet, but as she remained unwell, her parents sought further insight and Scholes went for another CT scan. This time a 30 cm cyst appeared.

She was rushed to A&E but the significance of the find was lost on Scholes, who was determined to get out in time to play a minor game for Rostrevor. This argument persisted until former Down co-captain Caolan Mooney made the phone call.

“He was like, ‘don’t be so stupid, you only have one body, you only have one life. Remove the cyst and I’ll help you recover,” Scholes said.

Caolan Mooney scored Down's first goal in Ulster SFC's loss to Monaghan at Clones last month, but he will not feature in their Tailteann Cup campaign after leaving the team.
Caolan Mooney of Down

“Caolan is a good friend of mum, and he was playing for Rostrevor at the time. I wasn’t listening to anyone but I was listening to him.

Scholes showed up to the game, but to sit on the sidelines and watch, as agreed, while her doctors began to map out her future. The cyst was removed in July 2019 and her parents thinking the worst was over, another bombshell was waiting for her.

Two weeks after her surgery, Scholes was back in the hospital to have her staples removed when the results came back and she was told she had cancer.

“The cyst was so big and there was no room for it to grow, it leaked and there were cancer cells in the cyst, that’s how I got cancer,” said said Scholes.

“I’m deprived of my health, I haven’t really come out into the open, but with cancer it was different. I was like ‘I don’t really want to tell anyone; but mom was like, “no, you have to tell your friends because you’ll see changes in your appearance, more than likely.”

Scholes went for further tests at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children, where they discussed the course of action from there. And there she learned that the doctors didn’t know if she would survive this.

“I was like ‘so you kind of handed me a stopwatch here and told me to get on with your life, I might hit stop at some point,'” Scholes said.

“So at that point it was almost like a wake-up call. I was like, okay, so I have God knows how long and it was kind of making the most of all because you don’t know what’s going to happen.

Scholes continued to play with his club, while his chemotherapy date was postponed until November. She was named captain of Rostrevor’s minor side ahead of their league campaign and inspired them to victory game after game.

“Before starting my chemo, I was talking to my oncologist. We were about to start the championship and I said to him: “is there any chance that we can push this back so that I can play?” Scholes said.

“He said, ‘Play your first game well and see how it goes. We won this match and then we reached the quarter-finals. He said; “Okay Leah, can we start the chemo?”

Down’s post-match team chat after Ulster’s recent final success

“Then we got to the semi-finals, I said, ‘it’s true, we still have a game here’, and then we got to the finals and won the championship. The week after, I started chemo.

Scholes ended up doing eight months of chemotherapy, she was supposed to have four sessions but it doubled. And although his round of chemotherapy lasted almost a year, it never damaged his morale.

She went to school when she felt able and even went to training with Rostrevor, participating in the non-contact sessions.
For now, she is tested every six months. She recently had an MRI and is awaiting the results while waiting for her summer vacation.

“It’s not even just for young girls, people in general who have a condition or disease, people who think they can’t play football or do this or that. Maybe someone one got hurt and he’s having trouble seeing the other side or getting out of it,” Scholes said.

“I just want to help someone have a different mindset, maybe they can because someone else did something similar to what I did, or even worse than me.

“If it motivates someone or raises awareness or something, then that’s great.”

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