When doctors gave mum Dawn Sowden the distressing news that her son’s leg would have to be amputated above the knee following complications with treatment for bone cancer, she feared he would struggle for the rest of his life.
But brave 11-year-old Ben O’Brien has put paid to any fears that he would never be back on his feet - showing true determination by not only getting to grips with a false leg, but taking up athletics with the help of a running blade.
Ben, a pupil at Ecclesfield Primary School, is now making impressive progress, training every week with the City of Sheffield Athletic Club - and he’s even set his sights on competing in the 2020 Paralympics.
“I would put nothing past him now,” said Dawn, aged 35.
“If someone had told me when he was first diagnosed that this would be the outcome I would never in a million years believed them.”
Ben’s cancer diagnosis came after he started to complain of pains in his leg and no longer wanted to play football, his favourite sport.
“At first I just thought they were growing pains,” said Dawn, a support worker at Northern General Hospital.
“But when Ben said he was in too much pain to play football I knew something was seriously wrong.”
After several hospital tests, Ben was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in January 2011. He was so ill following chemotherapy treatment that he spent a week in intensive care at Sheffield Children’s Hospital.
“We were told that he was in great danger,” Dawn said.
“I really thought we were going to lose him. It was the worst week of our lives.”
Ben pulled through and underwent surgery to have the cancerous bones in his leg replaced by titanium plates. However, following serious complications doctors had to operate to remove his leg from above the knee.
“It was Ben’s decision in the end,” said Dawn.
“He asked all his friends and family members ‘Would you still love me if I only had one leg?’
“I was heartbroken. I was so afraid that he would struggle for the rest of his life.”
However, just 24 hours after his operation Ben was out of bed and walking with the aid of crutches along the hospital corridor.
His mum continued: “When I saw him then I knew he’d be alright. I’d underestimated his determination.”
Since being fitted with his false leg and running blade, Ben has taken up boxing and has become such an accomplished runner he has been classified to run competitively by England Athletics.
He has now set himself a target of taking part in the 2020 Paralympics.
“He absolutely loves it,” said Dawn.
“He is so motivated. It’s given him a goal to strive for. He’s met Paralympians David Weir and Jonathan Peacock and told them ‘One day I’m going to blow you out of the water!’”
It is still unclear whether Ben will need more surgery in future to trim back the bone in his left leg.
“It depends on whether the bone decides to grow through the muscle,” said Dawn.
She added that the decision to have her son’s leg amputated was ultimately made by Ben himself.
“The doctor gave Ben his options and said the choice had to come from Ben. So Ben went away for 10 days, didn’t tell anybody what his decision was, went back to the hospital 10 days later and said ‘I want it amputated’. It was very brave.”
Dawn, who also has a 13-year-old daughter, Rebecca, and lives with husband David, added: “We have never stopped Ben doing anything. He pushes his own boundaries.
“He spent three years in treatment, so three years of lost life and he is making up for it.”
Party to recognise brave children
Ben O’Brien was a guest of honour at a special party called the Little Star Awards, held earlier this month by Cancer Research UK and retailer TK Maxx in London.
The celebration, which had a space theme, was held to raise awareness of the charity’s work in the field of childhood cancer research.
Ben was one of 21 children from across the UK who came together as ‘ambassadors’ to represent the 500 children who received Little Star Awards in 2013-14.
He enjoyed galactic-themed games and activities including experiments with dry ice, slime making, rocket launching and sampling freeze-dried astronaut ice-cream.