I thought I had a ‘stress rash’ after break-up and boozing too much – I had no idea itching was sign of killer

AS a student, you’re out partying quite a lot, which can leave you feeling a little worse for wear.

So when Zara Barton had a cough and started to get itchy skin, she thought she was just suffering from freshers flu.

The 19-year-old had just gone through an upsetting break-up and said she had been boozing a bit much.

Zara, from Solihull, West Midlands, was initially prescribed creams and antihistamines by doctors.

But her symptoms continued to get worse and Zara developed a 2cm lump on her collarbone.

Soon the hives on her body became 'unbearable' and the fashion marketing and branding student pressed for answers and was stunned to eventually be diagnosed with stage three Hodgkin Lymphoma last November.

Read more on Hodgkin Lymphoma

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One in three people with the disease have itchy skin. Unexplained weight loss, swollen lymph nodes and night sweats are also common signs.

She is now urging people to understand the signs of Hodgkin Lymphoma and says people should push for answers from their GP if they don’t feel right.

She 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.

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"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.”

She said many people have been in touch with her about their experiences, with some saying they have been shrugged off because doctors see them as ‘young, fit and healthy’.

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.

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

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."

Zara said she had put it 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.

"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 also had a reactive gland on the right side of her neck which would come and go.

She didn’t think it was a cause for concern and previously had tonsillitis at uni, where she had pickled up many colds.

What are the signs of lymphoma cancer?

There are two main kinds of lymphoma – Hodgkin Lymphoma and Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.

Lymphoma can cause many different symptoms, depending on which type of lymphoma it is and where it develops in the body.

The most typical signs are:

  1. Swollen lymph nodes, such as in the neck, armpit or groin area
  2. Night sweats
  3. Extreme tiredness
  4. Itching
  5. Unexplained weight loss
  6. Fever
  7. Excessive bleeding, such as nosebleeds, heavy periods and spots of blood under the skin

Other signs of lymphoma cancer in a more localised area include:

  1. Swelling of the stomach, loss of appetite and other abdominal symptoms
  2. Coughing, shortness of breath, or chest pain

Zara added that she first noticed the lump during freshers week, so just put it down to that.

“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."

At the start of October she discovered another lump but said doctors weren’t concerned.

She then saw another doctor who ran blood tests and referred her for an urgent scan.


On November 9, Zara received her diagnosis over the phone.

She said the doctor hadn’t wanted to tell her in this way, but said she didn’t want to wait until the next day to find out.

“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."

In December she froze her eggs as she was told that chemotherapy had the risk of making her infertile.

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

The itching stopped after the first session and Zara has put her studies on hold for a few months.


She said the diagnosis has affected her life a lot after being the ‘happiest she had ever been’ at university, to her lowest ever point.

"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.

"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.”

Zara added that she is not defined by her diagnosis and doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her.

She added: “My diagnosis has put things in perspective – life's too short, just do what makes you happy I suppose."

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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.

You can donate to Zara's father's fundraising page.

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