One day Jessica Johnson went to pick up the phone and found she couldn’t speak. She was a student, working a part-time job in a café while she studied for her teaching degree at Edge Hill University, and regularly took orders over the phone.
“I could hear the person on the other end,” recalls Jessica, “but I couldn’t respond or work out how to write down the order. It was very strange and frightening.”
Jessica originally thought the symptoms might be epilepsy, but an MRI scan revealed a grade two brain tumour, and she faced a high risk operation with no guarantee of success.
“I’d just finished my first year at university,” says Jessica, from Rainford. “It was such an achievement to get there – I felt like no-one thought I was clever enough to do a degree – so I didn’t want it to end. I didn’t want to die, I felt like I had so much more to achieve, so I decided to have the surgery.”
Two days after her diagnosis in 2013, Jessica also agreed to be filmed for Channel 5’s Brain Hospital, allowing a film crew to follow her day-to-day-activities leading up to the four-hour operation to remove the tumour. During the operation she was fully awake and was filmed completing tasks on an iPad while surgeons cut away the cancer, to ensure her brain was still functioning correctly.
“I wanted to do it to raise awareness of cancer in young people, but it also helped me get through it,” says Jessica. “The camera was a distraction. The day after the surgery it was the only time I hated being filmed, but overall it was a worthwhile experience.”
Within two weeks of the operation, Jessica was back volunteering with the local Brownies and Beaver Scout groups. She says:
“There weren’t many leaders so I knew the groups wouldn’t go ahead if I wasn’t there. I was very tired, but I pushed myself to do it. To be honest, after everything else it felt like a treat to have a bit of normality.”
It is this positive attitude and determination to succeed against the odds that made her the perfect candidate for a University Scholarship, presented annually to students who make a contribution to equal opportunities and diversity and inspire others through their actions.
As well as sharing her experiences with others on television, Jessica helped raise funds and organise events for the Teenage Cancer Trust and CLIC Sargent. She also set up a Facebook page, where she blogs about her experiences and gives advice and support to other young people with cancer.
Jessica took a year off to recover after surgery, so faced the daunting prospect of joining a new year group and making new friends. She adapted in characteristic style and looked set to continue where she left off. However, in 2015 she discovered the tumour had returned and she had to endure six weeks of radiotherapy.
Jessica still has difficulties with her speech and memory and has had to retrain herself to do simple tasks like getting dressed. She lost some feeling in her rights arm as a result of the surgery and still receives regular physiotherapy – but she hasn’t let this get in the way of her studies.
“I’ve got a Learning Facilitator who takes notes for me in lectures because I find writing quickly tricky and I tend to get words muddled up,” she says, “but I was determined having cancer wouldn’t stop me doing what I wanted.
“When I found out I’d won the Chancellor’s Scholarship I felt excited and a bit sick,” she adds. “I thought, surely someone else deserves this more than me? It means a lot to me to be recognised by Edge Hill – it makes all the hard work worthwhile.”
Jessica now plans to work in Special Educational Needs (SEN) teaching, following a placement in a special school. She has continued to volunteer at the school and believes her experiences will help in her future career.
“Some people don’t see how much children with SEN can achieve,” she says, “but I have a lot of empathy with the kids. I believe you can achieve anything with the right support and a positive attitude.”