Lea Tahuhu has been the mainstay of the White Ferns bowling attack for almost a decade, but a recent brush with cancer nearly ruled her out of the current England tour. She shares a message with Kristy Havill that everyone should listen to.
It was the kind of hat-trick Lea Tahuhu didn’t want next to her name.
Three times the White Ferns fast bowler went under the surgeon’s knife this winter. What started out as a tiny dot on her foot grew into a major concern for Tahuhu, that almost ruled her out of the White Ferns cricket tour of England.
When she was told the mole that had been removed could be melanoma, Tahuhu and her wife, White Ferns vice-captain Amy Satterthwaite, went through a “few scary days”.
And then the race was on to recover, with a wound on her foot that required a skin graft. A recovery that would take eight long weeks.
“It got me to some low places. It was such a shock, all of it,” Tahuhu says.
But the ever-determined cricketer made it. She’s speaking to me from the family hotel room she’s sharing with Satterthwaite and their daughter, Grace – just hours after arriving in Derby, where the White Ferns are based for the next fortnight.
When coach Bob Carter unveiled his 16-strong squad to contest three T20Is and five ODIs in England is September, attention focused predominantly on the omission of gun all-rounder Amelia Kerr, who chose to prioritise her mental health and stay home. There was also the welcome return of veteran Suzie Bates after a long injury layoff, and maiden call-ups for Claudia Green, Jess McFadyen and later Molly Penfold – called in at the eleventh hour after Rosemary Mair injured her shin.
But little did we know how close the leader of the bowling attack went to not seeing her name on the team sheet.
Tahuhu had booked in for a routine mole check to have a small spot on the side of her foot examined. She’d thought nothing of it for a long time, but then things escalated rapidly.
“It had been there for 18 months. It looked fine to start with and then it started growing slightly bigger and changed colour,” she recalls. Tahuhu went to her local GP before being referred to a specialist to have it removed.
However, the location of the spot on the top of her left foot meant it was going to be a tricky business removing it – a procedure that would definitely need to wait until after the summer’s cricket season.
“I had the mole taken off, and all went well at that point. There’s not a lot of skin on the top of your foot that you can actually pull together, so it was left a bit open,” says the 30-year-old Tahuhu.
A couple of weeks later, she turned up to the first White Ferns camp, but she was hobbling worse than she was after the surgery. Alarm bells rang, and another trip to the doctor revealed there was an infection in the wound.
It meant another trip to the specialist. “I was seeing a plastic surgeon at 8.30 in the morning, and by 2pm I was in for general surgery to remove all the dead bits,” she explains.
Now with a larger than anticipated open wound, Tahuhu was left to cool her heels on the couch for another fortnight while the site healed ready for a skin graft.
But again, things didn’t go to plan. “I went in to have a local anaesthetic for a small graft. We were sitting in the waiting room and the doctor said to Amy and I to come down and have a chat. It was 8.25am and I was supposed to be getting it done at 8.30, but he wasn’t in his scrubs. I should have put two and two together then,” she says.
What followed in the doctor’s office completely floored the two White Ferns.
“He said ‘We won’t be doing the graft this morning because we’ve had some preliminary results back from your mole and it doesn’t look positive’,” Tahuhu recalls.
“That morning then changed drastically, because it’s not often you get words such as ‘melanoma’ and ‘skin cancer’ thrown at you, that you certainly weren’t expecting. I sat there like a stunned mullet.”
Further testing showed melanoma wasn’t present, but the spot was not benign either. It was an indicator Tahuhu had taken action in the nick of time before the growth had progressed to a cancerous state.
Tahuhu then had a 2cm skin graft taken from her thigh and transferred to her foot – earning her the nickname ‘Salami’.
It was a frustrating time for Tahuhu. “What was supposed to be one local surgery and two weeks recovery, ended up being three surgeries and eight weeks later,” she says.
Eight weeks is a long time to be laid up, particularly for a professional cricketer forced to miss the White Ferns fortnightly camps in Lincoln and Tauranga with her teammates. The team’s August 13 departure for England was also looming, as she raced the clock with her recovery.
No stranger to dealing with injuries, Tahuhu admits she still reached some low places.
“There were a few days where I thought ‘How am I going to put ten times my body weight through my foot when I bowl? When at the moment I’ve just got a hole on the side of it,’” she says.
“But then I thought ‘No, I’m determined to get on that plane’, and I’m pretty diligent with what I have to get done to reach goals.”
Tahuhu now has to undertake the process of building up her bowling loads before the tour starts on September 2, with a T20 against England.
“It’s not as simple as being fit enough to run and to bowl again. It’s actually the stress you put on your body,” she explains. “It’s all very scientific, and done in the background as to the loads you need to hit. And being monitored by GPS and making sure you’re hitting the right numbers, so nothing else in your body breaks down.”
Sure, injuries are inevitable as a professional athlete. But this setback has forced Tahuhu to reconsider the importance she places on preventative checks that can affect her long-term health.
“That was probably the hardest thing. As a sportsperson you know you’re going to get injuries, but there was no real timeline they could put on this, and I wasn’t in control of how the skin graft would take and whether the donor site would heal,” she says.
After all, it’s not only herself she now has to consider in trying circumstances. Their 19-month-old daughter, Grace, was never far from Tahuhu’s mind throughout the ordeal.
“She puts a new perspective on everything, that’s for sure,” she says. “Anytime someone throws the word ‘melanoma’ at you it gets pretty scary, pretty real, very fast. I’m very lucky that’s not what it ended up being, but there were a scary few days there. It was tough.”
Having a toddler for company made being couch-bound more entertaining for Tahuhu. “Grace would come up to me several times a day and point at my foot and say ‘Ouch, Mumma, ouch!’” she laughs.
Tahuhu is grateful for the support networks around her, enabling her to get to the crease for her fourth tour of England.
“We’re so lucky to have family support around us so Amy could still go off to train while parents and siblings came round to look after both Grace and I for a change,” she says. “New Zealand Cricket have been amazing, they took over the full rehab and worked with the doctors in Christchurch really closely so I could get on the plane.”
Tahuhu emphasises the importance she will now place on health checks, particularly for her skin.
“I’m a pretty relaxed person so I wasn’t too fazed about getting it done, but I had Amy and my mum going on at me about getting it checked. I’m very thankful for them for harping on at me and I finally listened and got it done,” she says.
“I certainly won’t be taking any skin checks or mole maps for granted anymore. I’ll be one of the people who’s getting one every year on the date it’s needed.
“One of the reasons why I chucked a post on Instagram about it was we put up all of our positive and happy images, but when it comes down to it, the reality of life is sometimes setbacks happen. If we can avoid them in anyway, it’s as simple as having a check.
“You don’t even have to go and have a full mole map, you can go to your local doctor if you’ve seen a spot that’s changed colour or size. Health is wealth, as they say.”
It’s fair to say Tahuhu won’t be hearing the end of it from her mum and Satterthwaite any time soon.