Good friends Alex Warne and Polly Lewis are preparing to start two very different careers.
The teenagers are today the picture of health but they share a common bond forged more than 10 years ago.
Until December 2003, six-year-old Alex and four-year-old Polly lived in Worthing and East Preston respectively and neither they nor their mothers knew of each other.
But their worlds collided in the most devastating way when the youngsters were both diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia within four days of each other.
Their mothers Julie and Sally met while the children were being treated at the Royal Marsden Hospital in Sutton, south London, and their friendship developed as Alex and Polly went through months and years of gruelling chemotherapy.
They were there for each other for the good times and the bad and that close bond has remained over the years.
Mrs Warne and Mrs Lewis both became involved with the West Sussex charity Leucan, which helps families of children with leukaemia and blood cancer through practical support and sharing experiences.
They hope their story will give encouragement and hope to parents of young children currently being treated.
Ms Warne, 48, said: “When your child is ill you are concentrating on the moment and helping them to get through it.
“All you can see is doom and gloom and fear that your child might die. But Alex and Polly are living proof that all of this treatment were just a small part of their lives. It doesn’t have to be everything about them. They have grown up to be brilliant independent teenagers.
“I am hoping this will help reassure other parents.
“Having Sally and other people in Leucan over the years helped us get through it.
“Thankfully we have created something positive and inspiring out of some horrible circumstances.”
Alex, now 17, has just applied to train to become a Royal Marine while Polly, 18, has won a place at the Italia Conti theatre school in London.
Alex had always been a fit and healthy child and enjoyed sports but in 2003 he began to complain about his legs hurting and he could not shake off a cold.
His GP thought it was a virus but Ms Warne was unsure and insisted on further tests, leading to the boy’s diagnosis.
As a result of his treatment, which included infusions, chemotherapy and long spells in bed, Alex’s muscles wasted and he had to use a wheelchair on and off.
The steroids he was given made him gain weight and this led to him being bullied at school.
However, as his strength improved, Alex returned to his love of sport, taking up boxing to help.
He said: “I don’t remember a lot about being ill apart from the fact I knew something was happening to me.
“Taking up boxing was something I enjoyed as it helped get out my stress and pent up aggression.
“I’d always been interested in joining the services but I chose the Marines because I like the training and physicality. I am looking forward to getting started.”
Polly, of East Preston, near Littlehampton, first started taking dance lessons at the age of three but this came to an end when she became ill when she was aged seven.
She has vivid memories of the day she was diagnosed, including throwing up on the pavement, having bruises all over her legs and being rushed to hospital.
Like Alex, she ended up having to use a wheelchair and took up dancing again to help build up the strength in her muscles.
As she got better, her interest in acting and dancing developed and she is now hoping to have a career on TV or in films.
She said: “I’m hoping that reading our story will help parents. As a child you are too little to understand what is going on. You know you have cancer and you just get on with it.
“We are now all very good friends and it has helped knowing someone who understands what you have been through.”
Mrs Lewis, 55, who also has an older daughter Rosie, a successful singer, said seeing Polly going through treatment was tough for everyone.
She said:“There was one time when she had nine really nasty injections in a week and she asked: ‘Why me?’. I just couldn’t answer her.
“Polly was given the all clear in 2006 but went on to catch chickenpox and shingles which set her recovery back.
“Meeting Julie and Alex helped so much. It was such a draining time but we now have a great friendship.
“We get together and have a good laugh and we have two nice, normal teenagers. I am very proud.”
Family is getting help
ONE of the families currently benefiting from Leucan’s help is Ellie Mae Wile-Dunne and her mother Nikki, 48, from Southwater, near Horsham.
Ellie Mae, six, was diagnosed with leukaemia shortly before her fourth birthday and is now coming to the end of her chemotherapy treatment.
The youngster also had to fight E.coli and pneumonia and had to learn to walk again after treatment damaged her bones.
Ms Wile contacted Leucan and was given a grant which she used towards the cost of an iPad for her daughter.
She said: “It has come in very useful. She has spent 69 nights in hospital and was also in isolation at home for eight weeks.
Having the iPad came as a very welcome distraction to her.
“Being a part of Leucan and meeting up with other parents and seeing kids who have come out and through the other side has really helped.
“It can be hard to see the end game as you are just focusing on the end of treatment.
“Ellie Mae is doing really well but she obviously has a way to go to get back to full strength.
“You do start to wonder about the long-term impact of everything that has happened and what it means for the future.
“Being able to see people like Alex and Polly and other teenagers happily getting on with their lives with no side effects really does make a difference.”
Parents group set up charity in 1981
LEUCAN was set up in February 1981 by parents of children attending Southlands Hospital in Shoreham.
They found meeting together gave them and their children the opportunity to share experiences and offer each other encouragement and support.
In 1992 the group obtained Registered Charity Status.
The group supports families living in the area from Shoreham to Chichester with a child or young adult diagnosed with leukaemia, cancer or bone marrow failure up to the age of 25.
Some of the children who were supported in the early days of LEUCAN now have children of their own and are still in contact with the group.
It currently has 37 families on its records.
All fundraising is done by parents, family members and friends.
Funds are dwindling as are committee members and the charity currently need volunteers such as fundraisers, treasurer, secretary and possible chairman.
Anyone interested in getting involved should email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website at www.leucan.org.uk.
400 new cases of childhood leukaemia a year
One-third of all childhood cancers are leukaemia, with approximately 400 new cases in the UK each year.
Approximately three out of four of these cases are acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL).
ALL can affect children of any age, but is more common in children aged one to four. It is more common in boys than in girls.
Leukaemia is a cancer of the white blood cells, which are made in the bone marrow.
There are two different types of white blood cells: lymphocytes and myeloid cells (including neutrophils), which work together to fight infection.
Normally, white blood cells develop, repair and reproduce themselves in an orderly and controlled way.
In leukaemia, however, the process gets out of control and the cells continue to divide in the bone marrow, but do not mature.
These immature dividing cells fill up the bone marrow and stop it from making healthy blood cells.
As the leukaemia cells are not mature, they cannot work properly, which leads to an increased risk of infection.