Inspirational Gaelic footballer Leah Scholes refuses to let heart disease and cancer stop her sporting ambitions

Black humor was her means of survival, while Leah Scholes always refused to accept even the most discouraging diagnosis.

he was only 15 years old when her doctor informed her that she had stage 2 ovarian cancer, which was accompanied by the answer: “am I going to die?”

The Down minor turned 18 last March and is currently a barista. Her summer plans will consist of a part-time job at a local coffee shop and one of her other hobbies, backed up by her trusty Canon camera.

“I’m just finishing A-Levels, I’m going to take a year off and take up photography,” said Scholes.

“That’s something I’ve always been interested in. I really didn’t want to go to school for another year, I wanted to explore the world around me.

“I love doing action shots for the football club and I recently took some shots for an Arma game. I want to take a photo in Croke Park someday, if I had a job in sports, I would do it without delay.”

In April, Scholes was Down’s underage supersubstitute, scoring with her first touch to help them secure the Ulster title. It was an amazing journey that began with heart surgery when she was only three weeks old.

Scholes suffers from a congenital heart defect known as pulmonary stenosis, which means that one of the valves in her heart closes and she stretches it. Her first heart operation was when she was a child, and the second may be next year.

The condition also led to an irregular heartbeat, but Scholes never stopped arguing that women’s football was the perfect way out.

“The NHS loves me a lot, as you can see, in many ways,” Scholes jokes.

“I have had heart disease since childhood, but according to doctors, football helps me and my heart to be healthy.”

Her parents, Cathy and John, are sports fanatics and it was always likely that Scholes would end up playing women’s football after starting camogi when she was just six years old.

She became the star of her Rostrevor club after the family moved to the area from South Armagh and Down called her as a teenager.

It was 2018 and Scholes was playing in the U14s, U16s and Minors with her club when her foster district invited her for trials. Again, she thrived on the big stage until at the end of one session she lost all her energy. Alarm bells rang.

“I went through the trials and after each trial they threw so many girls because there were so many,” Scholes said.

“I got to the last exercise and I remember it like it was yesterday, I didn’t have the strength, I couldn’t even hit the ball. It’s like someone took my batteries out and left them aside.

“I remember getting into the car and just falling asleep. Mom and dad said, “That’s not very you.” Usually I could train until the cows came home.

“It was at that moment that I thought, ‘Something is wrong here. I went to the doctors, did a scan, and everything was clear. I had pains in the abdomen, and I continued to go to the doctors, and they said: “I can’t see anything, your blood is clean, your pictures are clean.”

“It was something we couldn’t understand. At some point I was told that it was growing pains. I thought, “I’m telling you now, it’s not growing pains.”

They changed her diet, but as she continued to experience discomfort, her parents turned to fresh opinion and Scholes went for another scan. This time a 30 cm cyst was found.

She was rushed to the emergency room, but the significance of the find was missed by Scholes, who was determined to get out in time to play a minor match for Rostrevor. This argument persisted until former Down captain Kaolan Muni called on the phone.

“He’s like, ‘Don’t be so stupid, you have one body, you have one life. Get the cyst out and I’ll help you with your recovery,” Scholes said.

“Kaolan is a good friend of Mommy, and at that time he played for Rostrevor. I didn’t listen to anyone, but I listened to him.”

Scholes came to the game, but only to stand by and watch, as agreed, while her doctors began to plan for her future. The cyst was removed in July 2019 and with her parents believing the worst was over, another bombshell was in store for her.

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

“The cyst was so big that it had nowhere to grow, it was leaking, and there were cancer cells in the cyst, so I got cancer,” said Scholes.

“I don’t talk about my health, I don’t make it public, but with cancer it was different. I said, “I really don’t want to tell anyone; but mom was like, “no, you need to tell your friends because you will see a change in your appearance, more than likely.”

Scholes went to the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children for more tests, where they discussed a plan of action from there. And then she learned that the doctors were not sure if she would survive.

“I thought, ‘So you more or less handed me a stopwatch and told me to get on with my life, I might press stop at some point,'” Scholes said.

“So at that moment it was almost like a wake-up call. I thought yes, so I have God knows what time it is and it was like making the most of everything because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Scholes continued to play with her club and the chemotherapy date was delayed until November. She was named captain of the Rostrevor minor team ahead of their championship campaign and inspired them to win game after game.

“Before I started chemotherapy, I spoke with my oncologist. We were about to start the championship, and I said to him: “Is there any chance that we can postpone it so that I can play?” Scholes said.

“He said, ‘Play your first match and see how it goes.’ We won that match and then went to the quarterfinals. He said; “Right, Leah, can we start chemo?”

“Then we went to the semi-finals, I said: “Yes, we have one more match here,” and then we went to the final and won the championship. A week later, I started chemotherapy.”

In the end, Scholes went through eight months of chemotherapy, she had to go through four sessions, but it doubled. And although her chemotherapy course lasted almost a year, it never spoiled her mood.

She went to school when she felt capable, and even went to training with Rostrevor, taking part in non-contact classes.

While it is checked every six months. She recently had an MRI and is waiting for the results as she prepares for her summer vacation.

“It’s not even just about young girls, people in general who have diseases or illnesses, people who think they can’t play football or do this or that. Maybe someone has an injury and is struggling to see the other side or get over it,” Scholes said.

“I just want to help someone change their thinking, maybe they can do it because someone else has done something similar to what I did, or even worse than me.

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