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Caerphilly mum who was inspired by cancer journey to become a nurse wins national award

Emma Hughes

A mother of two from Caerphilly has won an award in recognition of her bravery and dedication to her studies after returning to college as a mature learner with Coleg y Cymoedd while battling cancer and acting as the main carer for her disabled son.

Emma Hughes, 36, from Blackwood, has received the ‘outstanding commitment to study’ award at this year’s Agored Cymru Access to Higher Education Learner of the Year awards. The awards celebrate the achievements of individuals who have completed Access to Higher Education diplomas – qualifications which prepare people without traditional qualifications to study at university.

Diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer at 32, which resulted in a double mastectomy and having her ovaries removed, Emma was inspired by the support she received from the NHS to pursue a career within the health service.

As the mother of a child with severe learning disabilities, her experience also got her thinking about what her situation would be like for someone with complex needs, motivating her to want to work in the ‘Disability Nursing’ field, so that she could offer support to others based on her own personal insights.

Having left school at 16 without any qualifications, Emma needed to go back to education before she could consider a new career. She joined Coleg y Cymoedd in 2020 to study an initial Access Level 2 course in ‘Skills for Further Study,’ followed by an ‘Access to Higher Education Healthcare’ diploma over the course of two years, which enabled her to go on to university.

Emma, who is now in her first year studying Disability Nursing at the University of South Wales, said: “While I was going through all my medical procedures, I imagined how difficult it would be for people with disabilities, like my son, who is nonverbal, to go through something like that. The reality is that people with such issues tend to have less favorable outcomes when it comes to illnesses due to the communication barriers they face”.

“Many lack the cognitive ability to recognise and communicate that they are feeling unwell, leading to a delayed diagnosis. At the same time, the behaviours they can display can make treatment challenging. Chemotherapy is an ordeal for anyone, let alone for someone who lacks the understanding of what is happening. Knowing first-hand how difficult it would be for my child made me determined to become a Learning Disability Nurse myself, so that I could help.”

Having previously spent over 15 years working part time at a call centre, going back to college in her thirties was nerve racking. Emma worried about how she would balance her studies with her preventative cancer treatments and her caring responsibilities – something that had previously stopped her from changing careers years before.

To make this possible, Coleg y Cymoedd offered her flexible learning, allowing her to study and catch up on lessons online and working to assignment deadlines around her hospital appointments and caring role.

Emma with senior members of the Agored Cymru awarding body

Emma added: “I did worry that not having GCSEs would mean that a career in healthcare would never be an option for me and I didn’t know Access to HE courses were available, but they’ve been life changing for me. After just two years in college, I’ve gone from having zero qualifications to having a diploma with 39 distinctions and a place at university – somewhere I never thought I’d go.  I would recommend anyone else who is thinking about doing an access course to just do it!

“I just completed my first placement as a Learning Disability Nurse and loved it. I can’t believe I’m working towards my dream career and have to pinch myself sometimes. I feel like I have a lot to offer the industry from my personal experiences and can’t wait to get stuck in. Winning an award now is the icing on the cake and it’s nice to see others saying that I’m an inspiration.”

Following her success at the Agored Cymru awards, Emma has now been put forward for the national ‘Keith Fletcher’ award where she will compete against other winners from across the UK. The award is given to an Access to HE student who have shown the most dedication to their course.

Tanya Gordon, Emma’s tutor at Coleg y Cymoedd, said: “Emma’s story is so inspiring, and she is so deserving of the award she has received. She’s worked so hard over the last year and it is truly impressive how she’s gone through so much and remained so positive throughout.”

“We are so pleased that we could help Emma on her journey to her dream career – her progress has been nothing short of amazing and we know she will be a huge success in her new role!”