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When Amira Graham studies the large scar on her stomach it’s with a sense of pride rather than sadness and regret.
The 24-year-old beauty queen, who works as a trainee solicitor in a law firm in Belfast, accepts that her days of modelling bikinis may be behind her but that scar is a reminder of all she’s been through in the last 18 months and that she’s a survivor.
At the start of 2017 Amira made an appointment to see a doctor after developing a pain in her side. Having suffered with endometriosis since the age of 12, the Belfast woman thought the ache must be connected to the gynaecological condition. An MRI scan, however, showed that Amira had a 15cm cyst on her pancreas. While most pancreatic cysts are benign and often don’t cause any symptoms until it’s too late, some can become cancerous. Amira was told she would have to undergo surgery to remove the potentially
“When I was told it was a cyst on my pancreas and nothing to do with my endometriosis, I was really shocked,” Amira says. “Then the doctor informed me that I would have to have major surgery. Because I was only 23 at the time, my case had to go before a multi-disciplinary board and I was told I’d have a specialist nurse assigned to me.
“I was warned that the surgery could be life-changing and that depending on how the cyst was growing; I might have to have half my pancreas and spleen removed as well as the cyst itself. I was told that if that happened, a doctor and a spleen nurse would support me in terms of diet. It was a lot to take in and at the time, I just buried my head in the sand.”
The surgery was planned for the autumn of 2017 at the Mater Hospital but Amira had already signed up to appear in BBCNI programme Beauty Queen and Single. The show, which was filmed early summer, helped to distract her and gave her something else to focus on. But at the back of her mind, she knew that once the cameras stopped rolling, she would have to face major surgery.
Perhaps because of what she was about to go through, she says she also changed her perspective about the importance of looks. The show featured the beauty queens stripped off their make-up and designer clothes and focused on inner beauty rather than outward appearance.
“The show certainly helped me to see that it’s what’s on the inside that counts. I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore. Other things are much more important in life.”
When the day of the surgery arrived, it suddenly hit Amira what she was about to go through and she was in floods of tears as she prepared to go under the knife. Her family were there to support her, particularly her mother, a nurse, whom she describes as her rock. Her boyfriend Ben, who had seen Amira on Beauty Queen and Single and had approached her afterwards through mutual friends, to ask her on a date, was also by her side. The couple have been together since the pilot episode of Beauty Queen and Single aired last year.
The surgery took four and a half hours and was a success, with the cyst coming freely away from the pancreas. But recovery was difficult. Amira spent eight days in hospital, including several days in intensive care. It hurt her to laugh or cough and she had to undergo physiotherapy every day to help her to walk.
“When I woke up I was surrounded by drains and pumps and morphine,” she says. “I lost a stone when I was in there. I couldn’t sleep on my stomach or side and had to have help sitting up. If I laughed, I winced in pain. I’m a classically trained singer who’s used to projecting my voice but I couldn’t talk loudly. It’s mad how much we rely on our diaphragm. Even when I was walking, my back was hunched over.”
It took several months to recover and then Amira was offered a senior paralegal post at a top law firm in London. Not one to be easily beaten she decided it was too good an opportunity and accepted the job. She worked there for five months before being offered another opportunity back home in Belfast. Taking on not one but two new jobs so soon after surgery might seem daunting to many people but Amira was ready.
“I was sick of being sick to be honest and I’d already decided that 2018 was going to be my year,” she says. “I wanted to make the most of every moment.”
Amira, who hosts the Miss Earth beauty pageant each year, says the surgery has definitely changed her outlook on life. She likes to live in the moment now, to make the most of what comes along and to appreciate what she has.
She’s keen to get involved with raising awareness of pancreatic cancer and is also eager to encourage young women to embrace their bodies the way they are.
“I see my scar as a battle scar,” she says. “It’s proof of what I’ve been through and that I came out the other side.
“I’ll never be a bikini model again but that’s ok. That scar saved my life. In a way endometriosis saved my life. If I hadn’t suffered from endometriosis I probably would never have gone for that scan.
“I was on a photo-shoot recently and I asked the photographer not to edit out my scar. No one is perfect but we have to love who we are. That scar says I’m a survivor. My scar is part of me now, it’s part of my story.”
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Hair & Beauty
Beautiful hair and make-up from JAX Hair & Beauty Salon, Donaghadee
Out & About
Getting ready for a night of fun and celebrations at the Europa Hotel on April 13
Wedding of Sophie McAuley, Newtownabbey and Lawrence Dowie, Belfast