As rugby and league legend Honey Hireme-Smiler supports her wife, Rochelle, through stage four cancer, she’s asked Kiwi sports stars to help raise awareness of cholangiocarcinoma and “light it green”.
“It’s like déjà vu.”
It’s two-and-a-half years since Honey Hireme-Smiler married her wife, Rochelle, in the small chapel at Waikato Hospital.
They’d brought their wedding forward five months so Honey’s mum, Caryn, could be there. Less than a month after that special day, Caryn passed away.
Honey had missed the NRLW season with the Warriors so she could be a full-time carer to her mum, who had a rare and aggressive stomach cancer.
Then, on December 1 last year, Honey was hit hard again. Rochelle was diagnosed with stage four cholangiocarcinoma, otherwise known as bile duct cancer.
Now Rochelle, who met Honey playing club rugby nine years ago, is going through palliative chemotherapy, with the goal to beat a three to six-month life expectancy. Honey and their three sons are at her side.
They have “no option” but to be strong and to fight, says Honey, who retired from international rugby league at the end of 2020.
“The chances are really slim, I know that, but why can’t Rochelle be that miracle this time around? Why can’t she be in the five percent of people who live another four or five years?” Honey says.
“That’s the mindset I’ve taken on this time around. With Mum we were willing to fight, but the odds were against us; she had complication after complication.
“This time around there was déjà vu, especially Rochelle’s first 17 days in hospital and the complications she had.
“But the thought of not waking up next to her… I can’t think of that. This has given me a whole new outlook on life. Every day I wake up and look at her with a big smile, and say ‘I’m so grateful for you, and what do you want to do today that makes you happy?’
“We’re living every day like it’s our best. Nothing’s stopping us. We’ve bought a bright orange truck and a dog.”
The little Maltese Shih Tzu is named Rongoa – or Māori healing. “He’s our Māori healing dog. He lights up our lives,” Honey says.
Now Honey is asking whānau, friends and fellow sports stars to “light it green” on Saturday – in a campaign she’s leading to bring more awareness of cholangiocarcinoma, or CCA.
Olympic gold medallists Dame Valerie Adams, Emma Twigg and Stacey Fluhler, as well as All Black Carlos Spencer have already sent her photos dressed in green.
The Black Ferns Sevens have worn green scrunchies in their hair this week; the Hurricanes women, inspired by Honey’s old Black Ferns team-mate Sarah Hirini, have donned green for training.
The Sky Tower will be lit up green on Saturday, for World Cholangiocarcinoma Day – as will the Hawera Water Tower and the Gisborne Clock Tower.
There are walks for CCA awareness around the country – one in Honey’s hometown of Putaruru, and another in Gisborne, home to Rochelle’s family.
“Seven schools are doing mufti days. Organisations are wearing green to work on Friday. Teams are training in green,” Honey says.
“As much as I’m doing this for Rochelle, I’m doing this for awareness of this disease.”
Cholangiocarcinoma is difficult to diagnose and it has usually spread outside the bile ducts before it is detected. Almost 75 percent of people diagnosed are already at stage four.
Right up until December, Rochelle had no inkling she had cancer. Four months before, she and Honey were playing rugby league together for Honey’s old club, the Putāruru Dragons (whose players will also be wearing green playing shirts this weekend).
During lockdowns, the couple had been running, working out and had improved their nutrition. Rochelle has been a competitive waka ama paddler.
“But just before Christmas, she was feeling a bit off, so she got some blood tests done,” Honey says. “They showed the bilirubin levels in her liver were quite high.”
Her urine was dark, she was jaundiced and itchy all over. But she had no idea these were all symptoms of bile duct cancer.
In the next blood tests, the bilirubin was significantly higher, and Rochelle was hospitalised. While she waited for the results of a CT scan, the couple thought it might be a gallstone blocking the bile duct. But the CT showed she had cancer of the bile duct and it had already metastasised.
“There were traces of the cancer in her lymph nodes, her lower abdomen and her lungs. She has a huge mass on one ovary. The main tumour is wrapped around her liver,” Honey says.
Rochelle was told the cancer was stage four, inoperable and her only option was palliative treatment.
“Those were the words you never want to hear,” says Rochelle, just home from finishing her third cycle of chemotherapy.
In the first 17 days, she underwent four surgeries to unblock her liver. On Christmas Eve, she began chemo.
“We were told without chemo, her life expectancy was three to six months. With chemo it’s 12 months,” Honey says. “We’re also looking into other things – trials, genetic testing.”
Because of Covid, Rochelle has to have the chemo treatment in Hamilton on her own. She’s been passing the time on her laptop – catching up on her work with youth at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa.
But the treatment, she says, has reinvigorated her.
“I’m feeling as good as I was before all of this happened. The chemo has given me energy. I don’t believe I’ve got this thing going on inside my body,” she says.
“I’m still hesitant, I’m only three cycles into the chemo. But I’m just blessed that I’ve been pretty lucky so far. And with each treatment that I have, I’ll take it as it comes.”
Next week, Rochelle will have her first scans since her diagnosis – they will reveal whether the treatment has worked to slow the cancer down. She’s staying positive.
She’s been amazed by the response to Honey’s call to action (especially when her ‘all-time crush’, All Black Liam Messam, shared the ‘light it green’ message on his social media). Rochelle’s brother designed a logo for the campaign, with a koru manawa (two koru to create a heart).
Both women are grateful for all the awareness work that’s already been done by Mandy Wallace, a Blenheim woman who was diagnosed with CCA in 2012 and is now cancer-free.
Working with Wallace, Honey’s campaign to raise awareness has also had an impact on families dealing with the disease.
“There are nine ‘warriors’ with CCA in New Zealand that we’re aware of, but most of the other people who have this cancer, think they’re alone,” says Honey. “Since we’ve been raising awareness, we have had three other families who’ve come forward.”
Honey continues in her work as a disability sport advisor for the Halberg Foundation, a Sky Sport presenter and is part of the Te Hāpaitanga women’s coaching initiative to develop her coaching skills in rugby league.
She will continue building awareness of CCA, but Rochelle remains her No.1 priority.
“I already feel like we’ve made a difference with those new families reaching out. They felt so alone, and now they don’t.”
* Sky Sport have created a message supporting Hireme-Smiler’s campaign to raise awareness of cholangiocarcinoma which will screen on Prime on Saturday.