When Bernadette Hagans felt a pain in her right leg she brushed it off as minor twinge caused by moving into her top floor flat.
But as the weeks went on it got worse and she knew something wasn’t right.
The ache was making it harder to walk and sleep. Then after numerous trips to her doctor and an urgent MRI scan the awful truth emerged.
Bernadette, at just 22, had a rare type of cancer and would have to have her leg amputated. Such life-changing news would devastate anyone, but brave Bernadette has never stopped smiling.
Now, as a cancer survivor, amputee and the new face of a major fashion campaign, she says: “I lost my leg but found my voice. I know people think it’s unusual that I didn’t feel scared, but I didn’t. I felt very calm. I’ve always been a joker.
“My family worried but I tried to make them laugh because, if I was fine, then they would be fine, too.
“I’ve been the lucky one and now I want to help others to see there is a life after amputation – and a happy one at that.”
Bernadette first felt the ache in her leg in August 2017 after climbing a lot of stairs while moving into her new home.
She says: “It wasn’t going away and it was getting harder to walk far. It was like the bone in my leg was going to snap and it was waking me from sleep.”
On August 20, 2018, she was told she had synovial sarcoma, a rare cancer which develops in cells around joints and tendons.
Then came the news that her right leg would have to be amputated through the knee to save her life.
But less than a year after her world changed forever, Bernadette, now 24, was snapped up by London-based modelling agency Zebedee Management, which specialises in people with disabilities.
Soon she was featuring in regular campaigns, including one for Primark.
And inspired by her courage and positive attitude, top fashion and accessory brand Kurt Geiger has now signed her up to front their People Empowered Campaign, which was unveiled online in early September.
Bernadette says: “When I first went to my GP, they said it was a fatty lump [benign fatty tissue] and nothing to worry about. But I knew I had to go back and convince them something was wrong. It started as a pea-sized lump which grew bigger.”
For the next few months Bernadette, who grew up in West Belfast with her parents and four brothers, kept going back demanding a scan.
She says: “That was really big for me. I didn’t like complaining. I made appointments for other ailments just so I could mention my leg and that the lump was getting bigger and I was in a lot of pain.”
Her determination paid off – and saved her life.
When her GP finally agreed to send her for a scan in May 2018, Bernadette’s suspicions that she had a tumour were confirmed.
She says: “I didn’t tell anyone at first. I knew I could handle it. I could control how I felt but not how my family and friends would feel. I didn’t want to worry them.”
Bernadette carried on working 12-hour shifts at her local bookies while she waited for news. A month later, synovial sarcoma was diagnosed.
She says: “They said it was a very aggressive cancer and it was tangled in my nerves and blood vessels and because of the tangles they would have to remove my leg.
“I just accepted it there and then and I was laughing and joking with them. I loved my doctor so much. It could have been a terminal diagnosis – I was lucky.
“The nurse gave me tea and biscuits and said she would call my parents and explain it all to them, but I told her I was fine. I took a drive and recorded my reaction to my diagnosis on my phone. Then I went home and broke it to my parents.
“My mum was angry they hadn’t found it before. My daddy was calmer and he told me it would all be fine. That’s when I had to tell them they were going to amputate my leg.
“I remember on the morning of my surgery, I said, ‘Come on, let’s go.’ I was talking away on the operating table and I saw them setting everything up and I felt very calm and I was holding my breath to see if it speeded up or slowed down the monitor. Then I went to sleep. I woke up and my leg was gone.
“After the six-hour surgery I said to the nurse: ‘Oh, my leg feels so heavy.’ She said: ‘Your leg’s gone.’ I laughed, ‘How did I forget that?’
“I was asked if I wanted to keep my leg after surgery – some people do – but I donated mine to cancer research, so at least I can say part of me went to medical school.
“They wanted me to keep it covered, but I wanted to see it, so after that a nurse would come and change the dressing and I would look at it and take photos to see how it was changing over time.”
Bernadette was in hospital for ten days, but it took three months to fully heal before she could start learning to walk.
Now there’s no stopping her.
She says: “I saw a model with Down’s Syndrome on Instagram and thought it was amazing, so I left a comment and the model agency responded.
We chatted and they signed me up. Two weeks later I was modelling for Primark.”
Bernadette says she’s too busy for a boyfriend but it doesn’t stop men from asking her out.
She says: “I think it’s my new leg, I get more attention now then I did before. The only thing I can’t do now is run up stairs. I have to take one step at a time and I suffer from phantom limb pain.”
When she’s not busy modelling, Bernadette is an ambassador for charity CLIC Sargent, raises money for the Cancer Fund for Children, the Voom Foundation, and competes in a cross-fit team for Battle Cancer Move Forward, which turns cancer survivors into fitness coaches.
“This last year I’ve felt more like myself than I ever did before,” she says. “I used to be shy. I feel more confident now than I ever did with two legs.
“I have no regrets. I feel it happened for a reason. I love that I can help other people now.
“If I had to live my life over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.
“Now I love it when people come up to me and ask me about my leg, and what happened, or ask me for advice. It’s so lovely.”