Netball Flame burns bright in fight of her life

Former Canterbury Flame and Bahrain netball captain Kelly Hutton is in good spirits after surgery...
Former Canterbury Flame and Bahrain netball captain Kelly Hutton is in good spirits after surgery for ovarian cancer at Christchurch Women's Hospital last month. Photo: Megan Hutton
Former Canterbury Flames and Bahrain netball captain Kelly Hutton is fighting cancer in lockdown with heart and humour, inspired by a Silver Fern who's beaten cancer twice.

Kelly Hutton is, by nature, a fighter. And right now, it's as though her life is confined to a boxing ring. But she is in good spirits after surgery for ovarian cancer at Christchurch Women's Hospital last month.

She has her game face on, the same one she wears on the netball court - competitive, passionate, indomitable.

There's more physical evidence just above her left eye; a quail egg-sized lump where she hit the canvas in the 'ring' hard, but has no memory of the fall.

Hutton has put herself in the blue corner; her ovarian cancer is in the red. They've been slogging it out for five rounds of chemotherapy - and two surgeries - so far. There's just one round to go.

But then the 'dark horse' arrives at the fight, she says. Coronavirus.

"He's turned up unexpectedly, leaning on the ropes, all mouthy and trying to get the attention in his flashy outfit," Hutton says.

She's determined not to let him in the ring.

Nine months ago, Hutton was loving life in Bahrain.

She worked as an executive assistant for Texel Air, a cargo airline founded by a couple of Kiwis. She'd answered a job ad seeking a New Zealander and thought living on the island in the Persian Gulf would be a new adventure. At home in Christchurch, her mum, Val, was "beside herself".

In her first week there, Hutton had signed up to a local netball club. Three weeks later, she was named captain of the Bahrain national side.

"I was 44, with a bung calf. But my basic skills were their high-level skills," she says. "A couple of times instead of shaking hands at the end of a game, the other players would hug me and say: 'You're amazing!'"

Hutton quickly became good mates with the team of ex-pat Kiwis, Australians, English, South Africans and Sri Lankans.

"That's the power of sport. You can go anywhere in the world, and straight away have a bunch of new friends," Hutton says.

"Sport is an incredible thing. Even when you leave it, you have these women that you trained hard with, played hard with; people who have great attitudes, and don't let you down. You're surrounded by these good people, by virtue of being able to throw a ball."

Hutton also has netball friends in London, where she lived for six years, and throughout New Zealand. At the toughest time of her life, they've become part of her support crew.

Growing up playing in Christchurch, Hutton was there at the birth of semi-professional netball in New Zealand - a member of the original Canterbury Flames franchise playing in the first Coca-Cola Cup in 1998. She also won the national provincial title with Canterbury in 2010.

She played for New Zealand Universities, and even captained the NZ Indoor team in 2009.

From a family of three girls, Hutton also had a great rivalry with sister Megan, 18 months her junior. A tenacious defender, Megan Hutton played for the Southern Sting during their glory days in the National Bank Cup, and spent two seasons with the Steel in the transTasman ANZ Championship.

"We played together for Canterbury growing up," Megan says. "And then we played against each other when she was in the Flames, but I always came out on top with the Sting."

Kelly Hutton's role in the Flames was as a jack of all trades. "I could play every position, but I didn't excel at any particular one. I was the lucky Number 10," she laughs. "I was a good team person, and I could drop a bit of humour in, which helped."

Her coach was her old team-mate, Silver Fern Marg Foster. They have an enduring friendship, which has become even more vital since Hutton suddenly returned home to Christchurch last December.

She'd been home in September for her 45th birthday but Hutton was exhausted all through her visit. She brushed it off as jetlag.

"Back in Bahrain I started sleeping my weekends away, and I thought it was work, or maybe the heat," she says.

After what she thought was a bout of food poisoning, she was left with a constant stitch-like pain. She was diagnosed with costochondritis - inflammation of the rib cartilage. "I kept playing netball and being social, because it was just a muscular thing," she says. "But then it was starting to affect my life."

Tests for a possible haematoma on her spleen and an enlarged liver came back clear. But a CA125 blood test, which helps to diagnose ovarian cancer, showed her tumour markers were "through the roof".

Suddenly she faced surgery to remove her ovaries. Her mum and Megan flew over to take care of her afterwards. But the news following surgery knocked them all for six.

"They opened me up, and then shut me back up straight away," Hutton says. "They said there was nothing they could do." The advanced stage 3 cancer was too far spread throughout her abdomen.

That's the problem with ovarian cancer. Around 85 percent of New Zealand women with ovarian cancer aren't diagnosed until the later stages of the disease. It claims a life every 48 hours.

In shock, the three Hutton women flew back to Christchurch, where doctors started her first round of chemotherapy the week Kelly arrived home.

"My medical care here has been seamless. The doctors, surgeons and nurses are so brilliant," she says.

Last month, Hutton went under the knife again - for a full hysterectomy and the removal of her ovaries, appendix and some of her small bowel. The chemo had done its job blasting the tumours.

"Remember that 'bit of a dick' in the red corner? Yeah, well I just knocked her out - she never saw it coming," she wrote on Facebook days after surgery.

When I spoke to her a fortnight after that operation, Hutton was in good spirits.

"I'm feeling the best I have for ages. There's 90 percent less cancer in me!" she said laughing. "I'm not out of the woods by any stretch, but it's nice to have some hope."

The 2019 Bahrain netball team, with captain Kelly Hutton far left. Photo: Supplied
The 2019 Bahrain netball team, with captain Kelly Hutton far left. Photo: Supplied
Hutton, the realist, knows she isn't cured, and says it's unlikely she will be. When she pushed her surgeon before the operation, he told her she would maybe have "two years at best".

But that's where that fighting instinct comes out - and her sharp sense of humour. Her updates on Facebook are keeping her friends informed and entertained, while they give back with love and support.

"My attitude comes from sport. You know what your body can do because you've pushed it before," she says. "And I always deal with things with humour."

It's that same attitude that's helped her old team-mate and coach, Marg Foster. Now a specialist coach to the Silver Ferns - working with them in the lead-up to last year's World Cup victory - Foster has won two bouts with cancer.

First diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, she went through treatment only to discover cancer was also attacking her ovaries. She's now clear of both, but still has a Herceptin injection every three weeks - to block the signals that cause cancer to grow - and will continue to for her lifetime.

"My oncologists call me the miracle lady," Foster says. "They tell me to keep doing what I'm doing - travelling, drinking red wine, going to warm places. Anything to lower the stress.

"My family feel my netball, and the way I was operating, gave me cancer, so I'm not allowed to go back into the high-level coaching environment. That's why I love being a specialist coach for the Silver Ferns - I just fly in, fly out and my body feels good. I can be creative at that level, but with no extra stress."

Foster now runs a mentoring and coaching business, Motivationz, in Christchurch with her husband, former Olympic swimmer Anthony Beks.

"I'm feeling bloody good. Living in the moment, staying in the moment. You can't say enough about positive mental attitude which has helped me through quite a traumatic time," she says.

Foster has been messaging Hutton throughout her treatments, offering her encouragement and advice.

"I love Kelly's sense of humour and the way she's attacking it. She's just got it right," Foster says. "Her Facebook posts are so funny - she makes real light of a tough time. I love that. And it's so good for other people to hear too."

Hutton is grateful for Foster's support. "Marg's been ultra-positive and supportive. It's been great just knowing that you can get through a double whammy like that. Now she's living her life, travelling the world and nothing's holding her back."

Kelly Hutton has been in isolation for seven weeks now. And regardless of what the government decides after the next three weeks, she will stay there for at least another 12.

She's living at home with her mum, Val, in the Christchurch suburb of Burwood, tucked between a golf course and park, Horseshoe Lake and the red zone.

Other than going for walks, they've only left the house to visit the St George Cancer Care Centre. Hutton has just had her fifth round of chemotherapy and will have her last one in early May.

Megan Hutton has been delivering their groceries and baking, but at a safe distance.

"It's so hard not being able to help more," Megan says. "But they need to be in their own bubble. Mum can't afford to get [coronavirus], and it would kill Kelly before her time.

"And we want her around for as long as we can."

Megan is proud of the way her sister has taken on this fight. "She's owning it. Not a lot of people would handle it like this. She can always find a smile or the funny side in such traumatic circumstances," she says.

"In a crisis, Kelly is the do-er. She takes it on board, handles it and gets on with it." Just as she did when their dad, Roger - a policeman for 40 years - died aged 57, six weeks after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Hutton has an aunt with stage 4 ovarian cancer. "When I was sick in Bahrain, I googled the symptoms because of my aunty. And fatigue was the only one I had, so I absolutely dismissed it," she says.

"You can see why women often don't discover it until so late."

The Hutton family after the last National Bank Cup final in 2007 - won by the Steel - (from left)...
The Hutton family after the last National Bank Cup final in 2007 - won by the Steel - (from left) Val, Lisa, Megan, Roger, Kelly. Photo: Supplied
Hutton has since found she inherited the BRCA1 gene mutation, which greatly increased her risk of ovarian cancer.

"And because I always like to be different, I have a rare mutation of the BRCA1 mutation," she says. "Apparently there are only around 10 families on the planet with these special little critters hanging off their DNA. It could actually make my cancer more responsive to treatment. So fingers crossed."

The treatment, though, takes its toll on Hutton. After her fourth round of chemo, she fainted on the toilet and hit her head - resulting in the large bump above her eye. "Ding, ding, ding - round four knock-out," she says.

"I wasn't feeling well, but the risk of going into the hospital to be checked out was too high."

While her hair has been falling out for a second time, Hutton has been making plans. As soon as she's finished her treatment, she wants to start training to run a half marathon, possibly in Queenstown in November. "Exercise is the best thing I can do," she says.

"I've decided I'm going to do a massive six-month bike ride overseas after that. If I only have two years, why not just do it? You've got to have something to look forward to.

"I want mine to be a good story. I might not have control over that, but I will fight for it."

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