A brave teenager who was saved from cancer by a stem cell transplant stepped up on stage to make an emotional speech after the toughest year of her life.
Natalie Smith, 19, was chosen as VIP starter for Race for Life Pretty Muddy Glasgow, a 5K mud splattered obstacle course to raise vital funds for Cancer Research UK which more than 3,600 Scots took part in at Pollok Park on Sunday.
Celtic superfan Natalie who lost her own dad to the devastating disease sounded the start horn to kick off the event on September 9 – on what would have been her dad’s birthday.
Her dad Kevin Smith was 36 when he died from skin cancer on Christmas Day 2015. And just 16 months after losing her dad, Natalie was told she had Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma – a cancer of the white blood cells- in April last year.
But Natalie, a former media student at the City of Glasgow College, will forever be thankful to her mum Lorna Calderwood who was a near perfect match and donated the stem cells which have given her a second shot at life. Now cancer free, Natalie was determined to cheer on thousands of Scots taking on obstacles including an inflatable mud slide, space hoppers and a scramble net to help beat cancer sooner.
Natalie said: “I felt so honoured to be asked to start Race for Life Pretty Muddy Glasgow. It broke my heart when I lost dad to cancer and I was frightened when just 16 months later I found myself facing my own battle with the disease.
“What if cancer made me ugly? Would my boyfriend still want me if I went bald? Every night I’d lie awake worrying about so many unanswered questions. I was 18 and as I lost my hair day by day my confidence fell along with it.
“I plucked up the courage to shave my hair off instead of let chemotherapy take it and I soon learnt that hair is just an accessory. The people I love stood by me even in the darkest of days helping turn negatives in to positives. Cancer is a game changer which made me grow up very quickly. There are so many things I want to do to make up for lost time.”
And everyone from Celtic star Kieran Tierney to Natalie’s boyfriend Kieran Allen, 23, work pals to family as well as a first class team of doctors have helped get Natalie through cancer.
Natalie knows exactly why raising funds for research to give other families more tomorrows is vital. Born with a rare genetic immunodeficiency disorder, Natalie grew up with a higher chance of catching infections than other children and needed regular hospital visits. Her dad, Kevin Smith suffered from the same immunodeficiency disorder. Natalie who is a Celtic season ticket holder had also inherited a love for the football club from her dad so walking in to Celtic Park without him for the first time was hard. Natalie got through the first painful months after her dad died thanks to rock solid support from her dad’s partner, Hailey (cor) Smith.
But it was a hammerblow on April 21 last year when after discovering lumps on her neck and in her groin and several weeks of feeling exhausted, Natalie was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the white blood cells. Telling her family was hard.
Natalie continued: “I felt in shock but I didn’t actually cry. Over the next few days I remember saying to people not to cry. I wasn’t crying and I didn’t want them to either. I actually felt quite calm as I knew I had the support to get through it.”
Natalie faced seven rounds of chemotherapy which left her feeling sick. But as word that she was ill got out a message on social media from Hoops defender Kieran Tierney lifted her spirits.
Kieran wrote: “Hi Natalie, gutted to hear about your news. I’m just giving you a message to tell you to keep strong and always be yourself and whatever you do, always have a smile on your face. There’s a lot of people supporting you. Keep strong and keep watching Hannah Montana.”
Natalie lost her long brown hair during treatment in the Schiehallion ward at Queen Elizabeth University hospital in Glasgow. She had a collection of 12 wigs which she chose from each day but at other times wore no wig at all. Doctors explained that Natalie’s best chance of a cure was a stem cell transplant and it was a huge relief when tests showed Natalie’s mum, Lorna Calderwood was a tissue match.
Natalie was transferred to the Freeman hospital in Newcastle in February this year where she had conditioning chemotherapy to kill off her bone marrow. This was in preparation for receiving her mum’s healthy cells which would reboot Natalie’s immune system and hopefully stop cancer cells from growing. The transplant went ahead on February 2 2018 at noon.
Natalie said: “The doctors called the stem cells liquid gold. They were in a bag which was set up as a drip going directly in to my arm. They looked like the colour of tea but I knew these cells had the power to save my life. Mum had come down from Scotland to Newcastle for her healthy stem cells to be harvested and I remember her telling me she wasn’t going to moan as I had to live with pain like this all the time.
“If the transplant worked then the immunodeficiency disorder I’d suffered from all my life would be gone. My dad never had the chance of a stem cell transplant but one of his dying wishes was that one day I’d get the chance.”
But recovery was slow. Natalie was in an isolation ward to give her new immune system a chance to strengthen. Her weight plunged to seven stone and 5ft 5in Natalie needed to have a feeding tube inserted as she battled sickness and pain during two months in hospital in Newcastle.
Natalie said: “There were days after the transplant when I was scared I was going to die.
“I thought, ‘I can’t do it anymore.’ Most days I couldn’t even get out of bed without fainting. I watched all 129 episodes of Friends on Netflix. It snowed a lot last winter and I remember staring out of the window wishing I was back in Scotland, wishing I could go out with my friends like most teenagers do.”
It was a big day on April 2 this year as Natalie was discharged from hospital. But after just two days sleeping in her own bed in Ayrshire, Natalie got unwell again and had to be taken by ambulance to the Beatson Cancer Hospital in Glasgow where she remained in hospital for the next five weeks. In June, Natalie was recovered enough to go to the Parklife music festival in Manchester to celebrate her boyfriend’s birthday but she then got pneumonia and endured a further 10 days in hospital.
Now Natalie is recovered and hopes that marked her last stay in hospital for a long time. She’s back at work at Seamills Hydro in West Kilbride, plans a fundraising skydive in October to help people with cancer and would love to train to be a nurse. Doctors have told her it’s likely to take at least a year before her immune system to develop completely but the cancer is gone.
Natalie was at the heart of Pretty Muddy Glasgow which started on Sunday with 492 youngsters taking part in Pretty Muddy Kids, a 4K mud splattered obstacle course designed for boys and girls under 12. More than 50 youngsters from the RAF air cadets from across the west coast volunteered as stewards at the event, keeping the mud topped up and lining the route to cheer participants on.
Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life, whose official energy sponsor is ScottishPower, is an inspiring series of 5k, 10k, Pretty Muddy and marathon events which raises millions of pounds every year to help fund life-saving research.
The money raised at Pretty Muddy Glasgow will help Cancer Research UK scientists find new ways to treat cancers and save more lives. Organisers are now urging Scots to return their sponsorship money to help pioneering research.
Race for Life’s area event manager for Glasgow, Lauren Roberston said: “I want to say a huge thank you to Natalie and to everyone who took part in Pretty Muddy Glasgow.
“Listening to Natalie’s story brought home to everyone why raising money for cancer research is so important. The atmosphere on the obstacle course was full of fun and camaraderie with an extra helping of mud, sweat and cheers. It was also emotional with participants wearing signs on their backs declaring their reasons for taking part. Many will be remembering loved ones lost to cancer or celebrating the lives of people dear to them who have survived.
“Our mud-splattered supporters gave it their all and the atmosphere is electric as women of all shapes and sizes unite to beat cancer.”