Hughie Higginson and Freddie Xavi were crowned Young Fundraiser of the Year at the Mirror’s Pride of Britain Awards in 2021 when Hughie was battling acute lymphoblastic leukaemia
Armies famously march on their stomachs… and it turns out that a certain young cancer warrior does the very same.
Hughie Higginson, 13, who, with bestie Freddie Xavi, 12, was crowned Young Fundraiser of the Year at the Mirror’s Pride of Britain Awards in 2021, is chopping garlic when we catch up with him.
“I’m making one of my cravings from then,” he says, cheerfully. By “then”, he means the past three-and-a-half years spent fighting acute lymphoblastic leukaemia while raising hundreds of thousands of pounds with Freddie for Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital.
“Garlic butter potatoes,” Hughie says, setting about another clove. “I always stayed positive and ate quite well. Lots of bacon. I had a lumbar puncture one day and when you’re on the afternoon list you can have breakfast before eight o’clock. So I woke early and had a full English.”
No one could doubt his appetite for life. He is talking to us on the day he rang the end-of-treatment bell at the Royal Manchester. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. The lads’ rollercoaster began when Hughie, too ill for a sponsored walk for the hospital, got a promise from Freddie. I’ll do the fundraising for you, he said… running 2km every day in the 50 days until Christmas. And, oh boy, did that plan have legs.
Not only did Freddie complete his challenge, but the pair from Lancashire were taken to the country’s hearts. They have been feted by footballers, accosted by Ant and Dec and rendered speechless by rapper KSI. They quizzed Sharon Stone on a red carpet and were hailed by running legend Sir Mo Farah. It’s head-spinning. And all the time Hughie was quietly enduring cancer. He was diagnosed aged 10 in September 2020. Peak Covid. The very worst time to get the very worst news.
“It was all throughout that summer really,” he says. “It started with aches and pains in my chest then my back, my knees and ankles. It got to the point where he was struggling to walk,” his dad Keiron, 48, says. “And it was difficult to even get him to the doctors. It didn’t make any difference whether you were really poorly or you just felt you had a cold – no one was being seen easily at that time.”
The leukaemia was busy hiding, too. “We had a few blood tests and nothing was showing up,” says Hughie. Keiron adds: “The way it manifested itself in Hughie was unusual.
“He was admitted to Blackburn Hospital and then eventually transferred to Manchester. It took about a week to get diagnosed in Manchester, the way leukaemia was hiding in his body. He was just a bit of a strange case.” It flattened the whole family – including Hughie’s mum Katy, 45, big brother Billy, 25, and sister Beatrix, 17.
“You’re helpless,” says Keiron. “Your trust is immediately in the doctors and nurses and once we got that news, the focus shifted from being scared to getting Hughie better.” Covid restrictions meant they couldn’t even be by Hughie’s side. They had to hand him into the arms of the NHS in blind faith and hope. It was richly rewarded.
“Royal Manchester is such an amazing place,” says Keiron. “All the staff are brilliant. The NHS comes in for a lot of criticism in certain things but when you need the NHS in this kind of situation, I don’t think there is anything better.”
A long road of chemo stretched out in front of Hughie, who was miserable and bored. “Me and Freddie were always playing football and when I was having treatment and no longer able to do that, it was tough,” he says.
“Not being able to get out of the house because my legs pretty much didn’t work… I had to find other things that I could do.” A basketball hoop stuck to the bedroom window helped. As did fizz bomb Freddie.
Hughie says: “I was down in the dumps, but he rang me up and made sure I was OK and then he came up with the idea of the fundraising. I was so shocked someone would do that for me. We’ve come so far and it’s all down to Freddie.”
The bell ringing was the culmination. “This is the moment we have been hoping for from the very start,” Freddie declared at the ceremony.
Symbolic of all they’d been through, he held the bell for Hughie, who gave it three loud peals. “It’s been a special day,” says Keiron. “A day we’ve been thinking about probably since that first day of knowing… But I couldn’t imagine there were going to be so many people.”
Hughie’s big moment was in front of family, friends, hospital staff and well-wishers plus some VIPs from the lads’ beloved Burnley FC – players Josh Brownhill and Jack Cork.
The limelight lights Hughie up. He was playing the Artful Dodger in a Leeds Playhouse production of Oliver! when the news came he is cancer free.
“The whole family have had to cope with this for the last three years too,” says Keiron. “Today was the moment it felt like that weight has been lifted.”
He adds that there aren’t enough words for what the hospital’s staff have done for his family. Thanks to Hughie and Freddie the family have more than gratitude to offer the hospital. There’s that amazing total, north of £350,000 and counting, the lads have raised.
“It’s going to go to lots of different things,” says Hughie. “We’ve fundraised for my ward but we also supply things for all over the hospital. We’ve bought a blood machine for A&E which heats blood up so transfusions can be given quickly – within half an hour, as opposed to four-and-a-half hours.”
Hughie says: “I feel so relieved that it’s over, but I’ll miss the hospital. I’ll miss going in and seeing everyone.” He and Freddie have been called the new Ant and Dec. Does he fancy replacing them? “Yeah, that would be something I’m up for,” he laughs.
Hughie started back at school in September 2021 – Ribblesdale High School in Clitheroe, Lancashire – where Freddie is in the year below. But his treatment meant patchy attendance. “Now life’s more normal I’ll start getting back into real school,” he says. Some day, he hopes, he’ll be a TV chef and/or an actor. We’re back to food.
But Hughie’s final message is about Freddie. He says: “Thanks for everything and just being there. He has definitely been one of the main reasons why I’ve got through my treatment.” Keiron nods and says: “Thanks is the least we can ever say.”