A 12-year-old Salford girl who lost an eye to a rare form of cancer when she was a baby triumphed as part of a winning dance team in Florida.
Grace Rushton, from Ordsall, was one of 12 dancers who travelled to America to represent Salford’s Red Hot Flames cheerleading troupe in the prestigious US Cheerleading Finals.
The ‘Red Hot Wildfire’ team represented the UK in the Youth Pom category and beat six all-star American teams to take first place.
The delighted youngsters came back with sought-after winners’ white jackets, medals and a trophy.
Red Hot Wildfire team were also the only UK team on the day to grab a podium place in any category.
Grace was diagnosed on her first birthday with retinoblastoma – a rare form of eye cancer which affects babies and young children.
Just a week later she had her right eye removed to stop the cancer spreading and save her life.
Symptoms of retinoblastoma include a white glow in the eye – often seen when a photo is taken using a flash – and a squint.
Her parents later learned that she had been going blind in one eye for months.
Grace’s dad, Alan Rushton, said: “We first noticed a little white flicker in Grace’s eye when she was four months old and asked a health visitor about it but she told us not to worry.
“As she got older more people saw it, and we started to notice it in photos of Grace too.
“We took her to the doctor and when she saw it too she referred us to an eye specialist. A week later we were at Birmingham Children’s Hospital being told that Grace had cancer.”
Around one child a week is diagnosed with retinoblastoma in the UK. More than 90% will survive but early diagnosis is essential in order to save a child’s eyes, sight and life.
Alan said: “We were in absolute shock. We had never even heard of retinoblastoma and, as a parent, the word cancer is the worst thing you can hear.
“We didn’t know if Grace would be okay, how she would cope and how she would get on in life with only one eye.
“But the tumour was so big that the best option was to remove her eye and, although it was hard at the time, that turned out to be absolutely the right decision.”
Grace now wears an artificial eye, which she takes out and cleans herself, never lets her experience stand in her way.
Alan added: “Having an artificial eye has never presented any challenges for Grace. We thought she might have some trouble at school but everyone simply accepted that she had a magic eye. She is a popular, happy girl.”
Grace got into dancing in 2011 when a friend of the family, who danced for the Red Hot Flames, brought her some pom poms for her birthday.
She later joined the program herself and has been competing ever since.
She was part of the team that represented Great Britain in the European Championships in 2013 but this is the first time she has gone stateside.
Alan, who accompanied his daughter to Florida, said: “It was incredible to be part of such a huge event. We didn’t expect to win against such experienced American teams so when we did, we were completely overwhelmed.
“It was an amazing achievement and I am such a proud dad, especially given everything that Grace has been through.”
Grace has only just come back down to earth after winning the prestigious title. She said: “We knew we’d danced well but we didn’t think we’d ever win first place. We were so pleased when we heard our names – it was a dream come true.
“Dancing is really fun and I’d recommend it to everyone. You have fun, get some exercise and meet lots of people instead of being at home all the time.
“When you’re first learning the routines it can be quite hard but it gets easier.”
She added: “If there are any parents out there whose children are going through what I did, I want to reassure them. I was too young to remember when I had cancer but it has never affected me at all or stopped me doing what I want to do.”
Patrick Tonks, Chief Executive of the Childhood Eye Cancer Trust, said: “A diagnosis of retinoblastoma can be absolutely devastating for parents who worry about what their child’s future holds. Grace’s story is a true inspiration to us all.”
The Red Hot Flames Cheer and Dance Team opened in 1996 and has been growing ever since. Most recognisable for performing at Salford Red Devils rugby matches, now the team compete regionally, nationally and internationally in pom, cheer and stunt in every age category from tiny through to senior.