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Plucky 11-year-old aims for Paralympic glory as a swimmer just 15 months after her left leg was amputated below the knee because of cancer

Sophia dreams of sporting glory (Collect/PA Real Life)
Sophia dreams of sporting glory (Collect/PA Real Life)

A plucky 11-year-old is making a splash as a swimmer just 15 months after her left leg was amputated below the knee because of two rare forms of cancer and is going for gold as she aims for Paralympic glory.

When a golf ball-sized lump came up on her left foot in the summer of 2020, Sophia Houlston  was a perfectly healthy nine-year-old and doctors suspected it was simply a build-up of fluid.

But, as Sophia complained she was in pain, her mum and carer Corinne Houlston, 36, and window fabricator dad Lee Dawson, 37, sought further investigations, only to receive the heartbreaking news that their little girl’s lower leg needed amputating.

Sophia and her parents (Collect/PA Real Life)

Despite the huge adjustment, Corinne, of Romford, Essex, who is also mum to Tyler, 19, and Richie, 10, says Sophia refuses to  let her disability hold her back, saying: ” I had no idea what life she’d live after losing her leg.

“We’re just so very proud of her.”

When Sophia showed her parents a strange lump the size of a golf ball on the inside of her left foot in the summer of 2020, Corinne took her to a clinic where she was given an X-ray.

Sophia in the water before becoming ill (Collect/PA Real Life)

She said: “We were told it was just fluid, to go home and rest up for a couple of weeks. But Sophia kept complaining it was hurting.

“After a month, I went back and insisted on another X-ray. Again, we were told it was fluid and advised to lift her foot above her heart and try to get rid of it. But the lump just didn’t go away.”

Come September, Corrine – who was concerned Sophia’s foot may be fractured – visited her GP for a face-to-face appointment.

Sophia and Corinne (Collect/PA Real Life)

He referred the family to the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Brockley Hill, Essex, where Sophia was seen in early October.

After weeks of tests, including an ultrasound, MRI and a biopsy, Corinne and Sophia were called in for the results, with Lee initially waiting outside, because of Covid restrictions.

Corinne said: “It never occurred to me it could be cancer. Someone had mentioned a cyst, so I just thought it was that.

“I couldn’t believe it when they told us the lump was cancer. I thought at least they’d just remove it.”

Sophia in hospital (Collect/PA Real Life)

She added: “But then, within minutes, we were being told all Sophia’s nerves and ligaments were going through the tumour and it couldn’t be removed without amputating her lower leg.

“It was just me and Sophia sat in the appointment when we were told.

“Her dad was outside due to Covid and we both just sobbed.

“When we came out, Sophia was being sick. It was just too much for a little girl to take in.”

Sophia while in hospital (Collect/PA Real Life)

The family was rushed to University College Hospital in London where a team was waiting.

There, Sophia was diagnosed with both a malignant peripheral nerve sheath, a rare cancer of the lining of the nerves, and rhabdomyosarcoma, another rare cancer that forms in the soft tissue.

She endured four months of chemotherapy, which caused her to lose her hair, and then had her amputation in April 2021 – going on to be discharged after just 10 days.

Sophia with her prosthetic (Collect/PA Real Life)

Corrine said: “She was in a wheelchair initially before being fitted for her prosthesis in July.

“At first, it was really hard for her to get around and she’d only wear it once a week, as she found it easier without.

“But she kept on trying. First, she’d use it with a Zimmer frame, then with crutches. Eventually, she learned to walk unaided.”

Sophia enjoying the water (Presca/PA Real Life)

Sophia was so determined to master her mobility that she walked over the O2 with a charity last October and this March she even learned to ride a bike again.

But the remarkable youngster’s dreams did not end there.

Corinne said: “Sophia has always been a water baby. Though she’d never had lessons, I used to take her to the swimming pool or we’d have a paddling pool up in the garden and she always loved it.”

Sophia prior to the cancer diagnosis (Collect/PA Real Life)

She added: “While she became amazing with her prosthetic, she is still so much freer without. It even soothes the aches, pains and sores she gets where she had the amputation.

“She told me she wanted to do something with the Paralympics, so we’ve approached the local para swim team.

“Since then, I’ve been taking her swimming every week and she’s really coming on.

“And she’s desperate to represent her country one day.”

(L-R) Lee, Tyler, Richie, Corinne and Sophia (Collect/PA Real Life)

Sadly, Sophia is not out of the woods yet.

She is continuing to have regular scans, as doctors are unsure if nodules found on her lungs could also be cancerous.

But the youngster, who hopes to raise awareness of childhood cancers as she trains for her sporting dream,  refuses to be beaten and has teamed up with Presca Sportswear, who work with Lennox’s Children Cancer Fund, for a glam photoshoot showing the realities of living with limb difference.

Corrine said: “She’s a little girl with such big dreams. Whenever she says she can’t do something, I tell her that’s not true. She can do anything and she’s proving that every day.”