Another lockdown, and a rematch with cancer for netballer Kelly Hutton. But she’s sticking to her goal that gets her out of bed every day – cycling the length of New Zealand this summer.
Kelly Hutton has found herself in this unwelcome situation before. Exactly halfway through a gruelling cycle of chemotherapy – and then lockdown.
The last time was April 2020, when New Zealand first closed down to fight against Covid-19. Hutton was already in her own bubble, three rounds into her treatment for advanced stage three ovarian cancer.
One of the original Canterbury Flames netballers and captain of the Bahrain netball side, Hutton had come home from working in the Middle East to be close to her Christchurch family while undergoing surgery and chemotherapy.
Like the Level 4 lockdown strategy – to go hard and go early – it worked. And for a year, Hutton was cancer-free, but well aware it would make an uninvited return. One New Zealand woman dies of ovarian cancer every 48 hours.
So she went out and did what she’d promised to do – live life to the fullest. She ran a half-marathon, sky-dived from a helicopter, tramped steep walking tracks and competed in muddy mountain bike races.
She even played a bit of netball again and organised a reunion of former Flames and Tactix players for the ANZ Premiership’s new heritage round.
But two days after she’d raced in the 60km Bridge to Bridge mountain bike ride along the Waimakariri River in June, Hutton was told the cancer had returned.
“I was fitter than before I was first diagnosed. I couldn’t understand how I have done all that and still felt fine… well, fine-ish,” she says. “The only sign was a stitch pain in my side I’d had the last time.
“My oncologist thought I would get two years clear, and I only got 12 months. But they were a great 12 months.”
So here she was again, three rounds into the latest cycle of chemotherapy and feeling ill, when New Zealand was plunged into lockdown again last week.
And just hours after the announcement, Hutton was hit by a sucker-punch she hadn’t seen coming. A pulmonary embolism – a blood clot in her lung – which left her in agony and fighting for breath. And put her back in Christchurch Hospital.
But throughout all her ordeals, there’s one thing that keeps Hutton getting out of bed every day.
She’s determined to cycle the length of New Zealand this summer. And even her doctors are encouraging her to do it.
Hutton had planned to ride 3000km from Cape Reinga to Bluff this November. “But my oncologist said: ‘Do not cancel the bike trip, just postpone it’. And that gives me confidence,” she says.
“I really want to do it. And I need something big to aim for.”
She’ll be back on her bike, she says, as soon as the six rounds of chemotherapy are over. Even in lockdown, Hutton continues to have the treatment.
Her sister and former top netballer, Megan Hutton, has sat with her through every round, but now, with increased social distancing, she has to do it alone. Her next round is next week, on her 47th birthday.
But Hutton received “a bittersweet” present this week: her halfway scan showed two of the three “areas of trouble” had disappeared and “the other one is melting away as we speak,” a relieved Hutton says.
In the meantime, she’s not only dealing with her own illness, but helping her mum, Val, through cancer treatment. Mother and daughter live together in the Christchurch suburb of Burwood, where Val looked after her daughter during her surgeries and chemo last year.
But in the same week Hutton was told her cancer had returned, they were given the “devastating” news Val had a rare form of lymphoma on her liver.
“Mum had major surgery the same day I started chemo,” Hutton says. “It’s so unfair. But we’re looking after each other.”
Lockdown has also meant the cancellation of the Daffodil Day breakfast, hosted by the Canterbury West Coast Cancer Society, that Hutton was to speak on Friday.
In June, Hutton and her long-time friend, Silver Fern Maree Bowden, spoke at “Ladies Day” at the Ashley Rugby Club in North Canterbury, which raised $25,000 for the Cancer Society.
Bowden, who played alongside Hutton in the Canterbury Flames in the early 2000s, says Hutton was the star of the show: “I was just trying to hold myself together,” she says.
“Kelly is just so positive, and her sense of humour is wicked. The one thing we can all learn from her is to make the most out of every day; live life to the fullest. And don’t take everything so seriously.”
Hutton also shared her inspirational story with the Tactix side before the start of the ANZ Premiership season. And, at the request of Tactix coach Marianne Delaney-Hoshek, Hutton brought together former Canterbury netballers and convinced them to walk out on court in their old Flames and Tactix dresses before the Tactix played the Mystics at home in the league’s new heritage round.
“I had to call on a few favours, including with my sister,” Hutton laughs.
“A lot of them would have come just for Kelly, more than anything,” adds Bowden.
Such has been Hutton’s imprint on the netball community, she was nominated for the role of World Netball Courage Ambassador.
The role went to Sarah Donovan – an English-born goal attack in the Emirates team – who played against Hutton who was captaining Bahrain at the InterGulf netball tournament. “I remember she was recovering from chemo for breast cancer, and she wore a headscarf,” Hutton says. “It’s nice someone from that part of the world got the role.”
Once this latest cancer treatment is over, Hutton will be back on her bike. She’s not too disappointed she’s had to push her 40-day nationwide cycle tour out to February.
“It means I’ll be training in summer now,” she says. “If I can’t do it under my own steam, I could do it on an e-bike, I guess.
“It truly is what gets me out of bed in the morning, just thinking about it.”
She’d given herself nine months to prepare for the Tour Aotearoa cycle route, but knows the training she did this year won’t have been in vain.
In May, she “broke through a massive mental and physical roadblock” by riding up the Rapaki Track in the Port Hills – a feat she never imagined she’d conquer after cancer.
In June, she got serious, tackling a 52km mountainbike race in Tasman from Kaiteriteri to Māpua. Despite the rain and mud, she finished fifth in her category.
A week later she rode the 42km Lake Dunstan Trail – which doubled as a reunion with some of her old Cumberland netball team-mates she last played with in London 12 years ago. The next weekend, the Bridge to Bridge by the Waimakariri River, would be her last race for a while.
Although the embolism and other side effects of chemo may have knocked her back, Hutton’s humour and positivity are still strong.
“I’ll just look at this little bump in the road like an extended winter hibernation,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “In the meantime, fingers crossed my unwelcome door knocker has remembered what a terrible person I am to live with and is already planning to cut her stay short.”
* Even though the Daffodil Day street appeal and breakfast events around the country have been cancelled by Covid, you can donate to the Cancer Society here.