In the quiet times, while her mum is sleeping, Honey Hireme sprints up and down the stairwell inside Waikato Hospital.

When there’s no one around, she might dash along the ward corridors. “I think the hospital staff think I’m a bit crazy,” she says.

Hireme may be a multiple World Cup champion in league, rugby and rugby sevens, and an icon of the new women’s NRL. But this “very different” training is for the toughest challenge she says she’s ever had to face.

Always explosive, relentless and unforgiving on the rugby or league field, Hireme speaks gently and tenderly as she sits next to her mum’s hospital bed.

This has been an exhausting and emotional vigil for Hireme, whose mother, Caryn, was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive stomach cancer less than five weeks ago.

Hireme has rarely left her mum’s side in all those weeks, most of that time spent in Waikato Hospital. It’s meant Hireme has put on hold all of her careers – playing for the Warriors, working as a sports commentator for Sky and as the disability sport advisor across the Waikato for the Halberg Foundation.

She says it’s a privilege to become a full-time carer for Caryn; they’ve always been close, and live in the same house in Hamilton.

“If Mum’s fighting, then I’m fighting. It’s as simple as that.”

Right now, as her mum recovers from her latest emergency surgery, Hireme isn’t sure whether she will take the field for the Warriors in this season’s Women’s NRL competition, which starts in three weeks’ time.  

It was a major coup for the Warriors to sign up the 38-year-old megastar, who played for the St George Illawarra Dragons in the inaugural WNRL last season.

Hireme has one of the most comprehensive resumes in New Zealand sport. She’s won World Cup titles for the Black Ferns, Black Ferns Sevens and the Kiwi Ferns – who she now captains – and has been repeatedly named one of the best in the world, no matter what code.

“But this is the toughest thing I’ve ever had to go through,” she says.

“When this all first started, someone said to me ‘God gives his hardest battles to his best soldiers’. And that’s so true. You really don’t know if you can cope, but when you have no choice, you do.”

Captain Honey Hireme scored two tries and led the Kiwi Ferns to a 46-8 victory over Fetu Samoa in June. Photo: Getty Images. 

Caryn is just 62, and was “one of the fittest and healthiest women I know”, her daughter says. In recent years, she’s been walking marathons around the globe with a group of friends.

Her sudden illness has been hard on Hireme, her three younger brothers and Caryn’s mokopuna (grandchildren) who “all adore her”.

But they’ve all been blown away by Caryn’s strength and positivity through a succession of medical setbacks.

“Mum has dealt with it all in a very open and positive way. And the family are drawing off that too,” Hireme says. “With me being by her side every day, I get energy from her, and vice versa.”

That’s why Hireme has been running up and down the hospital stairs every day – to help her precious mum. She runs up nine flights nine times, and does 100 push ups and 300 core exercises at the top. 

“It’s the one thing that I’ve done for myself,” she says. “I’ve been quite strict about keeping in good condition in order to look after Mum. I know that’s what I need – to be physically fit and mentally stay on top of things,” she says.

“The furthest I’ve been from Mum is the gym, which is two blocks from our house. When we’ve been able to take her home, and my partner or my brothers have been around to look after her, I’ve gone to the gym for an hour and a half.”

Hireme is relieved she came home to play in New Zealand this year, after a season in Australia. This season she helped revive the women’s league competition in the Waikato, as captain and coach of the Hamilton City Tigers.  

Caryn had been at Waikato Stadium just over a month ago, proudly watching her daughter lead the Melville women’s rugby team to victory over Hamilton Old Boys, to win the Waikato premiership. The next day she drove herself to hospital in agony with stomach pain.

Hireme says her mum had been suffering from stomach cramps for a month. “She works at a rest home, caring for people. But she started coming home from work and going straight to bed in pain,” she says. 

Her doctor had arranged an endoscopy. But Caryn deteriorated to the point where she could barely eat.  Once she was in hospital, they discovered she had stomach cancer, which had spread to her bowel.

She’s had a number of setbacks, the latest delaying her chemotherapy to remove part of her bowel. But she’s been constantly surrounded by the love of her whanau.

“My house is now a mini-marae – we sleep 30 to 40 people on the weekends,” Hireme says. “We’re a very close family, and mum was the eldest girl in a family of 11. They want to look after their sister.”

From the moment seven-year-old Hireme began playing league with the boys for the Putaruru Dragons, her mum was has always supported her.

“She wouldn’t necessarily come to all my games – it was our dad [Chippy] who was on the sidelines driving us. But Mum would be at home with food ready for us. She’s always been in the background, making sure everything was good for us,” Hireme says.  

“During my years playing sevens on the world circuit, while I was in and out of the country, my son moved back to Putaruru to live with Mum. She’s been key in raising him with me.”  He’s 14 now. 

“He’s been struggling a little bit through this. But I told him the one thing Nan is best known for is being very selfless, and always doing things for other people, quietly in the background, never seeking acknowledgement.”

Caryn Hunter walked the Great Wall of China Marathon. Photo: supplied

In the past six years, Caryn has been walking half marathons and doing adventure races like the Spirited Women with a group of girlfriends.

“Every year they’d save up for a big event overseas. She’s done the Great Wall of China Marathon, and her next one was New York,” Hireme says.

“Every now and then she’d ask if I wanted to go for a walk with her, and I’d say ‘No Mum, I’m all about short distances’.”

With her mum in hospital, Hireme contacted her employers and coaches, explaining she needed to take time off.

“They’re all backing me 100 percent, so that I don’t have to leave mum’s bedside. I offered to quit, but they’ve all said ‘Don’t you leave!’” she laughs.

From the hospital, she’s managed to squeeze in some paperwork for her job with the Halberg Foundation, where she works with young athletes with physical disabilities.

Hireme’s family are now waiting to learn whether Caryn’s rare stomach cancer is genetic. She has female cousins and aunties who have died from stomach and breast cancer – doctors believe the two are connected.

The family have been told it looks to be a very similar cancer to that caused by a gene mutation in musician Stan Walker’s family, the McLeods from the East Coast. As far as they know, Hireme’s family aren’t related.  

Hireme continues to be in awe of her mother’s positive mindset. “Mum has just been so open, asking people to accept the fact that she’s dying, and to celebrate her life,” she says.

“I’ve told her ‘What you’re going through is rat shit, but you are so inspiring to other people. I’ve always known that you’re strong, Mum, but you’re even stronger going through this. Even after the worst days, you wake up every morning and say let’s go again’.”

Hireme and her partner, Rochelle, were to get married next February, but they have brought their wedding forward to some time in the next two weeks.

“It will be just a small wedding, but I’d love to do it with Mum there,” Hireme says. “I know she will do everything to make sure she’s here to see it, too.”  

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

Leave a comment