Brave Giffnock schoolgirl chosen to start Race for Life in Glasgow

A Giffnock youngster recovering from leukaemia was chosen as VIP to kick off the first Cancer Research UK Race for Life Glasgow in three years.

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VIP starter Freya Pennington (right) with her sister Eliza at Race for Life 2022, Glasgow. Pic: Mark Anderson
VIP starter Freya Pennington (right) with her sister Eliza at Race for Life 2022, Glasgow. Pic: Mark Anderson

Freya Pennington, who turned eight last week, was joined by her big sister Eliza (9), as he sounded the start horn at Glasgow Green to send thousands of participants on the 3k and 5k courses.

It was a special moment for Freya who received a Cancer Research UK Children & Young People star award in recognition of her courage after being diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia on November 5, 2020.

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More than £20m has been raised in Glasgow to fund gentler and more effective treatments for cancer since Scotland’s first Race for Life event was held in the city in spring 1995.

But the much-loved event in Glasgow had to be cancelled in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic. That’s why it was cause for celebration when it was revealed Race for Life Glasgow this year has raised almost half a million pounds.

Freya’s parents, Louise and Adam Pennington know exactly why raising funds to give others more tomorrows is vital. Their daughter had 10 blood transfusions, chemotherapy and endured dozens of medical procedures during months of treatment at Glasgow Children’s hospital.

Covid restrictions meant for weeks she was unable to play with her sister Eliza or brother Harris, two, and could only wave to her siblings from a hospital window.

Freya even had to learn to walk again after the side effects of treatment took their toll. But she’s now in remission, back at school at Braidbar Primary and her three years of treatment will end in March.

Louise said: “Freya is an incredible wee girl. It’s an emotional day for any parent when they celebrate their child’s birthday but we couldn’t be prouder of Freya.

“She’s been through so much. I remember 90 per cent of her cells were leukaemia cells when she was first admitted to hospital. Her red blood cell and platelet count crashed that night and she needed a blood transfusion to make her strong enough to start her first dose of chemotherapy.

"We couldn’t believe how rapidly she had become very unwell and that this was the same girl who had actually been at school that morning. She hadn’t been well for a couple of weeks prior to this with a cough and a sore knee. But we would never have thought she had cancer.

“It was a frightening time but everyone from the nurses to the doctors, the cleaners to the physiotherapists on the Schiehallion ward were angels in disguise, just wonderful.

"One of the most challenging parts were the weeks when Freya was apart from her sister Eliza. The girls are close and missed each other so much. That’s why it’s been lovely to watch them sound the horn together to start the Race for Life today.

“And it’s brilliant to see Freya so well. She’s on what’s known as maintenance treatment but is loving school and adores her teacher. I wouldn’t be surprised if she might want to be a doctor or nurse when she grows up so she can one day help other people.”

Dr Chiara Pirillo, a scientist based at the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute in Glasgow was chosen to sound the start horn to set the Race for Life 10k participants on their way.

Her research tries to understand how the immune system, which is normally able to respond to influenza and other pathogens, can be improved to be able to respond to cancer.

Dr Pirillo who also took part in the 5k event was supporting in honour of her dad Giuseppe Pirillo who is living with leukaemia and in memory of her aunt Annamaria Pirillo who died from breast cancer in 2016 aged 56.

Dr Pirillo said: “I race for life for my Dad, for my aunt who I was very close to and for everyone affected by cancer. The funds raised will make a difference to people’s lives today and for future generations.”

Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life, in partnership with Tesco, is an inspiring series of 3k, 5k, 10k, Pretty Muddy and Pretty Muddy Kids events which raise millions of pounds every year to help beat cancer by funding crucial research. 

Every year around 33,200 people are diagnosed with cancer in Scotland* and one in two people in the UK born after 1960 will get cancer in their lifetime.**

Now organisers of Race for Life Glasgow are sending a heartfelt message of thanks to everyone who put their best feet forward as well as their supporters. And they’re appealing for people to make every step count by paying in sponsorship money as soon as possible.

Lisa Adams, Cancer Research UK’s spokeswoman in Scotland, said: “It’s brilliant that Scotland’s biggest Race for Life is finally back and we are incredibly grateful to everyone who took part.

"The atmosphere at Race for Life Glasgow was hugely moving- full of emotion, courage, tears and laughter as people celebrated the lives of those dear to them who have survived cancer and remembered loved ones lost to the disease.

“Now we’re asking everyone who took part to return the money they’re raised as soon as possible. Funds raised- whether it’s £10 or £100 will help scientists find new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer, helping save more lives.”

Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life, in partnership with Tesco, raises funds for world-class research to help beat 200 types of cancer – including bowel cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, lung cancer, testicular cancer, brain cancer, children’s cancers and leukaemia.

Oonagh Turnbull, head of Health Campaigns at Tesco, said: “This will be our 21st year in partnership with Cancer Research UK and Race for Life and we hope this year can be the biggest yet.”