Monday 22 April 2019

'I've more confidence now than I did before' - meet the young woman who lost a leg through cancer; and gained a new modelling career

Bernadette Hagans (22) tells Stephanie Bell how shortly after she had learnt to walk again with her prosthetic limb, she was signed up by a leading London agency

Model Bernadette Hagans at home in west Belfast on March 15th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph)
Model Bernadette Hagans at home in west Belfast on March 15th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph)

Stephanie Bell

A young woman who had her leg amputated last year is preparing to step out on the catwalk in a glamorous new modelling career.

22-year-old Bernadette Hagans from Belfast went through the trauma of losing her leg in October after being diagnosed with a rare cancer.

She had to learn to walk again using a prosthetic limb, and now, less than six months later, this inspirational young woman has emerged as a positive role model, embracing her life as an amputee.

As someone who is actually rather camera shy, it was a huge step for Bernadette to sign a contract with London-based Zebedee Management, which specialises in models with disabilities.

But since signing on the dotted line last month she has flown to London for three photoshoots and is booked to model a new clothing collection from a well-known sports brand this month.

Which is all the more remarkable considering that it was only in January that Bernadette learnt to walk again with her prosthesis.

Then again, from her diagnosis just last August, this incredibly upbeat young woman has been determined to keep positive and, as she chats, it's clear that her overwhelming emotion is one of a deep sense of gratitude that she is now cancer-free and has been given the chance of a dream new career.

She is also determined to use her new role to help bring about change in the fashion and beauty industry and show that it is okay to be different.

Bernadette says: "I'm doing stuff now I would never have dreamt of and it has given me a new lease of life. I actually have more confidence now than I did before the cancer thanks to the modelling contract, which has been really fun.

"After my amputation, it felt amazing to be signed with Zebedee. I love everything that they stand for - they're giving people a chance, no matter what makes them different.

"Being different doesn't make you wrong, it makes you more unique. I love that I'm being given the chance to work with some incredible people who are creating a change in the industry."

Bernadette had just moved to a new home in a top floor apartment in 2017 when she noticed a pain in her leg, which at first she put down to having to climb stairs several times a day.

However, over the course of the next year the pain continued to become more severe until finally she was sent for an X-ray, which revealed a cancerous tumour.

"I started having pain in my calf at first," she explains. "Over time the pain was getting worse and was waking me from my sleep. It was a stabbing type of pain, but gradually started to radiate down my leg.

"I started to feel a bump. It was the sort of bump you'd get if you hurt yourself with a bruise on top, but there was no bruise. This got bigger quite quickly.

"It got to the stage that I was constantly having pain in my leg, finding it hard to walk because short distances made my leg feel dead."

Bernadette, who worked as a clerk in a bookmaker's before her diagnosis, first experienced the pain in August 2017 but was not diagnosed for another year in August 2018.

"I first went to my GP in December 2017 and she thought something wasn't right and asked for a second opinion," says Bernadette. "The second doctor said it was lipoma, a benign tumour made of fat tissue.

"But the pain just got worse and I was back and forth to my GP surgery asking for painkillers and they wouldn't give them to me."

Finally, when it became obvious the pain was not going away, she was sent for an X-ray last May and immediately booked for an MRI a week later.

Bernadette, who lives in west Belfast and is one of five children, never told anyone that she was attending the hospital because she didn't want to worry her family.

Even when going through biopsies she went alone, but she finally had to tell her parents because she couldn't walk after the procedure.

When it came to the results, she again decided to go by herself so as not to alarm them.

Even after being told she had a rare and aggressive cancer and would have to have her leg removed urgently, Bernadette was so calm and accepting that medical staff were actually concerned she hadn't taken the news in.

Reflecting on how she responded to the shock, Bernadette explains: "I had to ring mummy and daddy after the biopsy because I couldn't walk and I knew at that stage I had a tumour and I had to tell them. I just didn't see the point in worrying everybody, and of course they were worried.

"I went for the results myself. I think I had known for ages that it was cancer and I didn't see the point in falling apart because I knew there were babies with cancer and I'd had 22 good years.

"I was told it was a really rare and aggressive form of cancer and usually they would just take it out, but because it was attached to my nerves and vessels they told me I would have to have my leg amputated or I would die.

"I wasn't shocked and I was actually joking with the staff. They were worried that I hadn't taken it in and kept me behind to try and make me understand and wanted me to ring my parents.

"Honestly, I really didn't see the point in panicking.

"I went for a drive and the nurse kept ringing me every 20 minutes asking if I had told my parents yet and finally I told her I was on my way to tell them." Her parents, Martin Hagans and Theresa Clarke, were naturally devastated and terrified for their child.

Bernadette says: "They started to panic and were really afraid and freaking out because I was going to lose my leg. Then dad started to reassure me it would be okay, although I am not sure he really believed it. I think he was in denial."

After a series of hospital tests Bernadette came through surgery to have her right leg removed from the knee down on October 30 last year.

She was in hospital just a few days and insisted on going to her own home afterwards even though she faced getting to know a very different life as a wheelchair user.

While she had accepted her cancer diagnosis and amputation with incredible courage and fortitude, Bernadette admits she did initially struggle with the loss of her independence.

"The only time it got to me was when I couldn't do things for myself," she says.

"I was always independent and had left my parents' house and had my own home and car and job and suddenly mum had to help me do simple things.

"I had moved to a ground floor apartment to make life easier and at first I didn't want to leave the house in a wheelchair, and if I had to, I would make sure my leg was covered.

"I didn't like people looking at me and it made me feel anxious to leave home at the beginning.

"Even when I got my prosthetic in January I was trying to hide it. Now I am proud to be different and I live my life normally, just differently. Now I know people are going to look but I feel it is nothing to be ashamed of."

Bernadette spent 10 days in January learning to walk again. She kept a blog of her journey on Instagram where she first spotted details about the model agency specialising in people with disabilities.

She commented on its good work and was stunned to get a message back from the owner inviting her to send in pictures.

"I just commented on Instagram that I thought it was amazing what they were doing and the owner Zoe contacted me and asked me to send her pure pictures of myself with no filters," she explains.

"I was hesitant at first because I would never have seen myself as a model, and in fact I don't like getting my picture taken and don't really do selfies at all. I only have a couple of pictures on Instagram and you can't really see my face in them.

"Mum persuaded me to send them to the agency and the next thing Zoe was in touch asking if she could represent me. I flew to London on February 19 to do my first photoshoot for their website and I actually ended up doing two photoshoots that day.

"I've been back for a third, and I've been booked for another one for a sportswear company.

"It has just been amazing getting the chance to do it all. I really don't see myself as a model but I think how fantastic it is that something so brilliant has come out of something so bad.

"I know when I was being diagnosed I was very positive and joked a lot, but I never really had much confidence and this has given me a lot of new confidence."

As well as an exciting new career, Bernadette is also thrilled to become an ambassador for the children's cancer charity CLIC Sargent, and as a result of her Instagram blog has been contacted by many other young people going through a cancer diagnosis.

"People are contacting me, asking for my advice on cancer, and it is just amazing to me to be able to help people," she says. "So much is happening and I feel happier than I've ever been."

Bernadette is currently cancer-free although her medical team did want her to have a course of chemotherapy. She has refused the treatment although has not ruled it out in the future if the need should arise.

She adds: "I was sent to the fertility clinic where they said I could get eggs taken out and frozen as the chemotherapy would affect my chances of being able to have children.

"They wanted me to have four-and-a-half months of chemotherapy but I just thought I wouldn't be able to have kids and I would lose my hair and it only cures two people in 10, so I decided not to have it.

"I knew I was clear of cancer and I didn't see the point. I just wanted to get my life back and be able to do something for me again."

  • Bernadette's incredible journey can be found on her Instagram at @bernadettehagans

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