Student, 19, who put worrying health symptoms – including a 2cm lump on her neck and itchy skin – down to ‘freshers’ flu’ reveals her shock at discovering she has blood cancer

  • Zara Barton, 19, from Solihull, was in her first year at university when she developed a large 2cm lump on her neck and other health problems 
  • Doctors prescribed medicine and creams for her rashes and Barton put a party lifestyle and an upsetting break-up as the reasons behind her health woes 
  • Trusting her instincts after she also began losing weight, the student pushed for tests and was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma 
  • Ten days later Zara started chemotherapy at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham and has since had seven rounds with five more to go 

A first-year university student who put her ongoing cough, skin rashes and a large lump on her collarbone down to a dose of ‘freshers’ flu’ has revealed her shock at being diagnosed with blood cancer.

Zara Barton, from Solihull in the West Midlands, was initially prescribed  antihistamines by doctors in February last year after complaining of itchy skin but put the unusual rashes down to a difficult break-up and going out too much during her second term at university. 

The 19-year-old said put her persistent cough weight loss and even a hard 2cm lump that appeared above her collarbone down to leading a ‘typical student lifestyle’.

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Fashion, marketing and branding student Zara Barton, 19, from Solihull, was in her first year at university when she developed a large 2cm lump on her neck and other health problems – which she initially put down to partying and a painful relationship break-up

After trusting her instincts that her health problems weren’t simply caused by being run down, Zara pushed for further tests – and has now had seven rounds of chemotherapy at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham for stage three Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

A worrying large lump appeared on the student’s collarbone but she assumed it was just a swollen gland

Zara and her family were left devastated after scans revealed that the teenager had blood cancer – and she’s now urging others to recognise the symptoms of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

But after the hives on her body became ‘unbearable’ the fashion marketing and branding student pressed for answers and was stunned to eventually be diagnosed with stage three blood cancer last November.

The teen, who is raising money for charity via her  had her eggs collected to help preserve her fertility before she started chemotherapy in December, and now, halfway through her treatment, she received the good news last month that there were no signs of active cancer in her body.

Zara is passionate about raising awareness of the symptoms of Hodgkin Lymphoma and urges anyone who recognises the symptoms to visit a doctor – and to keep returning if they’re not taken seriously.

Zara said: ‘I think if people recognise the symptoms, don’t hesitate to go to the doctors, even if you feel like it is nothing because I just assumed ‘it was nothing to worry about’.

‘Something like itching, I didn’t have a clue that that was a sign of blood cancer.

‘It’s best to double-check and you can tell when something’s not right, even at the very start when I was getting the itching I just thought ‘this isn’t me, this doesn’t feel right’.

‘So it’s important to be persistent if you still feel like something is wrong.

‘I’ve had so many comments on my TikTok about people with similar experiences of going to the doctors and not really being listened to and I guess that’s because we’re young and they just think ‘they’re fit and healthy’.’

Hives also appeared on Zara’s skin, which doctors initially treated with topical creams – right: The purple bruise-style spots that appeared on the student’s thighs because she couldn’t stop scratching the hives on her skin

Swollen glands from a previous bout of tonsillitis left the new student assuming that the lump on her neck was simply caused by a bad cold

And the partying lifestyle of student life left Zara assuming her health woes were just because she was run down

Zara said that her itching started last February and she visited the doctor in May where she was prescribed medication, which she hoped would solve the issue.

But it got progressively worse to the point where she’d scratch her skin so much it would bruise.

She also experienced weight loss and lost around a stone – but thought it was due to eating less.

Zara said: ‘I’d itch, which would then come up in hives almost anywhere on my body – so my arms, legs, feet, anywhere really.

‘It would literally drive me mad. It would be hot and was really getting unbearable.

‘It was really persistent and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I had creams that I would put on but I remember sometimes I’d lie there with cold flannels and a fan just to try and make it more bearable.

The hives that appeared all over the fashion student’s body – including behind her ears 

‘I put the itching down to multiple things. I did go through a pretty upsetting breakup in May [2021] and during that time had a bad stress rash, so I thought maybe that had continued.

Awareness: Zara says she wasn’t alarmed at all by the lump that appeared on her neck at first – because she didn’t realise it could be a sign of something more serious

She said: ‘I didn’t realise that Lymphoma is the most common cancer in teenagers and young adults.’ Pictured: the lump on her neck

‘I thought being at university with constant late nights, drinking regularly, probably not eating as well as I should – these were just lifestyle things that made me think at the time ‘ok if I was eating more healthily, getting more sleep, not going out as much then maybe this wouldn’t be happening’…’

Zara said she had a ‘really reactive swollen gland’ on one side of her neck which would disappear and reappear again for months.

But she thought this wasn’t a cause for concern, given she’d previously had swollen glands from having tonsillitis and was at university where she assumed she’d pick up colds and illnesses.

Zara has begun sharing details about her cancer on TikTok, including trying to raise awareness about the illness amongst her peers

The cancer of the blood that Zara has affects around 1,950 people each year in the UK. Pictured: the student on a night out during her first months at university

Zara said: ‘When I first noticed it [the lump], I wasn’t alarmed at all. It was during freshers so I thought maybe it was a bit of freshers flu and could just be a swollen gland.

‘I also noticed I had a cough which never really went away. I thought it was freshers flu. My friends all had coughs at around the same time, it was nothing really different compared to the people around me.

‘I put a lot of my symptoms down to student life, especially with not being at home.

‘My mum and I were saying if I was at home maybe we would have picked it up sooner but because you’re so on the go you kind of just brush these things off. It was a bit difficult to get seen by the doctors as well as they were mainly telephone consultations.

‘They’re symptoms that you can so easily put down to something else and I guess I thought they were all separate issues.’

Hodgkin’s lymphoma: A cancer that attacks the body’s disease-fighting network

Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymph nodes, which is the body’s disease-fighting network.

That network consists of the spleen, bone marrow, lymph nodes and thymus gland. 

There are various types of lymphoma, but two main ones: non-Hodgkin’s and Hodgkin’s. 

Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a type of cancer that starts in the white blood cells. It is named after Thomas Hodgkin, an English doctor who first identified the disease in 1832.  

It affects around 1,950 people each year in the UK, and 8,500 a year in the US.

Hodgkin’s lymphoma is most common between the ages of 20 and 24, and 75 and 79. 

The survival rates are much more favorable than most other cancers. 

Symptoms include:  

  • a painless swelling in the armpits, neck and groin 
  • heavy night sweating
  • extreme weight loss 
  • itching
  • shortness of breath 
  • coughing 

Risk factors: 

  • lowered immunity
  • a family history of the condition
  • smokers 
  • those who are overweight


  • chemotherapy
  • radiotherapy
  • steroids 
  • stem cell or bone marrow transplants

The 19-year-old said that at the start of October she found another lump above her collar bone and returned to the doctors, who she claims wasn’t concerned.

But at the end of the month, she saw another doctor who ran several blood tests and referred her for an urgent ultrasound scan.

On November 9th, the evening of her scan, Zara received her diagnosis.

Zara said: ‘The doctor obviously didn’t want to have to tell me this over the phone but I’d been so persistent on finding out I couldn’t wait until the next day. He was like ‘have you heard of Lymphoma?’ and I was like ‘no, what is it?’ He was like ‘oh, it’s blood cancer’.

‘Obviously that was just a huge shock. I just didn’t know what to expect, what that meant and what I was about to go through.

‘He was trying to explain the treatments I might have. Obviously we didn’t know everything about it yet and we still had to find out what type and stage. You think the worst I suppose.

‘My scan results came back showing it was stage three. It came back and showed that it was all in my neck, chest and in my spleen.

‘That was quite scary as well finding out that it had got to that point without me knowing because I felt so normal in myself otherwise.’

Given that she was told that there was a risk of becoming infertile after chemotherapy, the student had an operation to remove and freeze her eggs in December.

Ten days later Zara started chemotherapy at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham and has since had seven rounds with five more to go.

She said that her itching stopped after her first session and has decided to take a year out of her studies, and will redo the year come September.

Since her diagnosis, the teen who shares informative videos about the uncommon cancer that develops in the lymphatic system, said that the support she’d received from family, friends and even strangers has been amazing.

Zara said: ‘My diagnosis has affected my life a lot. I was living at university with my friends and literally felt the happiest I’d ever been, so I felt like I’d gone from my highest point to my lowest really.

‘I posted my story online because when I was diagnosed I was going to tell my close friends and I thought people were going to hear about it anyway and when people hear that someone’s got cancer, you don’t want them to think the worst.

The teenager is currently over half way through her chemotherapy treatment plan and is urging people not to feel embarrassed about going back to their doctor with health concerns

‘I wanted people to know that this is a treatable type of cancer and I just thought that it wasn’t something that I wanted to hide, or be embarrassed about, it’s just something that’s happened.

‘So I just wanted to share my journey and be open about it. I didn’t realise that Lymphoma is the most common cancer in teenagers and young adults and considering I’ve never heard about the symptoms, I wanted to raise a bit of awareness in the process.

Her father Lloyd is prepping to run the Brighton Marathon next month to raise funds for the Teenage Cancer Trust

‘I just wanted to show that you are still you as well when you are going through your treatment, you’re not defined by a diagnosis. I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, I wanted people to see that I’m still me.

‘My diagnosis has put things in perspective – life’s too short, just do what makes you happy I suppose.’

Zara’s dad, Lloyd Barton, is running the Brighton Marathon this April and is fundraising for the Teenage Cancer Trust, a charity that has been supporting her throughout her treatment. 

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