Kelly Hutton turns 49 today. But three weeks ago, she was sure she’d never reach her birthday.
To celebrate what’s almost certain to be her last major milestone, she hopes to have a picnic at the beach with her two best friends, then birthday dinner with her family.
That will include dragging out the fancy dress box with her nine-year-old nephew, Blake, and niece Ayla, who’s six.
“I’m determined to get into the batgirl outfit one last time,” Hutton says.
“But that might be a bit too much hard work. I’m really tired now.”
* Netball Flame burns bright in fight of her life
The Canterbury Flames netballer is dying. The ovarian cancer she’s lived with for the past four years has finally got the better of her.
Over those years, Hutton has been incredibly open about her illness, her treatment (three major surgeries and 33 sessions of chemotherapy) and now her final days.
After being diagnosed with advanced stage three ovarian cancer, she often came close to being cancer-free, but she knew she’d never be cured; it was always lurking.
But Hutton has never wanted the cancer to define who she is – she’s always been so determined to make the most of every hour she has. And even on the worst days, she’ll come out punching with her zany humour and startling positivity.
Throughout those years, LockerRoom has followed Hutton’s journey – from the highs of completing a half marathon, tackling stunning walking tracks, sky-diving from a helicopter, racing mountain bikes, and playing netball again when her knees allowed her. And also raising thousands of dollars for cancer causes.
To the lows of undergoing aggressive treatment in Level 4 lockdowns; hospitalised by unexpected side-effects like a pulmonary embolism; bedridden by chemo, but then supporting her mum, Val, through her own treatment for liver cancer.
And having to quit her endeavour last year to cycle the length of Aotearoa two thirds of the way through, when the cancer strangulated her bowel and she needed emergency surgery. Hutton’s been undergoing treatment ever since.
On August 5 – the day the Silver Ferns would play their World Cup semifinal against England – Hutton wrote to me to break the most shattering news. She’d been told by her oncologist she had just a few weeks to live; she’d developed another bowel obstruction from aggressive growth of the cancer, but this time, there was nothing they could do to stop it.
“It’s all come as a bit of a shock after things looked to be turning around. Making it to my birthday looks to be a long shot now. So it’s big girl pants time,” she said.
“I kinda feel like my life is aligned with the Silver Ferns campaign at the moment. Looked to be down and out earlier in the week, but still a chance for some golden moments yet … right?”
Well, not so much for the Ferns, as it happened. But there were still golden moments to come for Hutton – and special silverware to ensure her name and her legacy live on.
When I first talked to Hutton back in April 2020, one thing she said really stuck with me.
“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,” she said.
And almost every one of these women has gathered around Hutton over these final weeks.
She’s found it so moving and uplifting reading the hundreds of messages of love and memories from netball communities all around the world.
In her 49 years, she’s cast her net wide. Twice she was an international captain – of the New Zealand indoor netball side and the Bahrain national side. A wing defence – but “a jack of all trades” and a star bench player – she also played club netball in London for six years. Hutton was an original member of the Canterbury Flames side who played in the first semi-professional netball league, the Coca-Cola Cup, in 1998, and won the national provincial title with Canterbury in 2010.
Among the who’s who of Silver Ferns who’ve sent Hutton heartfelt messages is Jane Watson, who wrote to her while playing at the Netball World Cup in South Africa. They were team-mates in the 2009 Canterbury side.
“Oh Kel, you are honestly the bravest person I know,” Watson wrote on Facebook.
More tributes have flowed in from Silver Ferns including Belinda Charteris, Donna Wilkins, Irene van Dyk, Jodi Brown, Lesley Nicol, Adine Wilson, Vilimaina Davu, Debbie White and Margaret Foster, who lent her support to Hutton after surviving two bouts of breast cancer.
Former Silver Ferns captain Julie Seymour wrote: “You have taught and reminded us so much about what is important in life – and in the end, it’s people.”
Silver Fern and close friend Anna Galvan: “We’ve had a lifetime of laughs, some very big nights, and there are many, many tales to tell both on and off the court. There will never be a team-mate like you.”
And Helen Mahon-Stroud, her old Canterbury team-mate and Black Fern rugby star: “In terms of high performance, given your relentless ability to challenge yourself physically and mentally, and rise to the occasion with a quick-witted comment and utmost dignity, it may not have been the Silver Ferns, Black Ferns or Tall Ferns. But to have had membership as a team-mate and supporter of the Kelly Hutton Ferns has been an absolute honour.”
Hutton has been overwhelmed and humbled. “I never knew I was so consistent with how I dealt with people and it’s pretty special to have found out at all,” she says.
“Silver linings, eh? You can always find them.”
Hutton first wanted to share her story back in 2020 to help women recognise the signs of ovarian cancer – which aren’t always obvious.
She was 45, working for a cargo airline in Bahrain and playing netball when the symptoms began. Initially she was overwhelmed by fatigue and thought she had food poisoning, which shifted to a constant stitch pain in her side.
A blood test picked up that her ovarian tumour markers were “through the roof” and surgery to remove her ovaries revealed the cancer was at advanced stage three, and already taking over her abdomen.
That’s not unusual with ovarian cancer – around 85 percent of New Zealand women with the disease aren’t diagnosed until the later stages. It claims a life every 48 hours.
She immediately came home to New Zealand with her mum and sister, former Southern Steel defender Megan Hutton, to have major surgery and start chemo. Hutton would later discover she had inherited the BRCA1 gene mutation, which greatly increased her risk of ovarian cancer (during her illness, she also lost an aunt to the same cancer).
Through all the treatment her body has endured, Hutton reckons her years of playing sport and generally staying active primed her for it – physically and mentally.
“It’s prepared me for everything. It’s my whole foundation – and I didn’t even know. It’s the lessons from training, and the friendships and networks you build up. I can’t believe how many hundreds of people I’ve played with or against,” she says.
“I swear I’ve heard from every single person I know. They’ve written paragraphs of memories. And I’ve even had messages from people I didn’t know.
“I’ve always been a tall, geeky giant and felt like an outsider. As a kid I was always the big, tall one, and I felt really self-conscious. I hate thinking other people might feel like that, so I’ve always tried to drag people into my geekiness – not realising they thought I was the confident one.”
A huge sports fan, her heart broke for the Silver Ferns as they fell to fourth in the world earlier this month: “I know how hard they worked. It was just one bloody pass and it all came undone … and it could’ve been so different.”
But she has revelled in watching women’s sport in Aotearoa blossom in the past two years, hosting three World Cups. “What’s happened in women’s sport in the last couple of years has been such an eye-opener for me. I can’t believe how much we accepted before. We knew it at the time, but we were like ‘This is our lot, we don’t deserve it’. But bloody hell, we do,” she says.
“The momentum keeps growing, here and worldwide. It’s not a bad time to go out – especially when no one is really talking about the men’s Rugby World Cup yet.”
Her hope for women and girls in sport? “That it’s no longer called women’s sport – it’s just sport. That my nine-year-old nephew will go to netball and not say ‘This is just a girl’s sport’, or go to watch the Phoenix, whether it’s the women’s or men’s team, it won’t matter.”
She also hopes someone will finish the 3000km Tour Aotearoa ride for her. She was cycling over the Maruia Saddle just outside Murchison on the West Coast, when severe abdomen pain forced her to stop.
“Mum has always said she wants to finish the last 1000km for me, and I really hope she does. There might be a big group of people doing it, but whether it’s just her, or a tribe, my spirit bike will make it to Bluff and I’ll be happy,” Hutton says.
“I’m sad I didn’t finish it, but proud of where I got to and I hope it inspires other people to get on a bike and do it. I love this country – just get amongst it. If someone does something because they were inspired by what I did, how cool is that? That’s a legacy.”
Hutton’s legacy will be evident in many places. The new Canterbury Cancer Centre is naming a patient room in her honour (she’s an ambassador for the West Coast-Canterbury Cancer Society).
The Christchurch Netball Centre community has created The Kelly Hutton Memorial Trophy – awarded to a coach, manager, player, administrator or official in Canterbury’s representative squads “who displays the values and positive energy of Pūtahi Poitarawhiti ki Ōtautahi”.
They will also honour her memory with the Kelly Hutton Changing Room in Christchurch’s new Ngā Puna Wai indoor sports venue, due to open in November.
The Tactix will present the Kelly Hutton Tactix Spirit Award to a player or staff who demonstrates Tactix values on and off court, and connect with everyone, including sponsors and fans, says coach Marianne Hoshek-Delaney (another close friend of Hutton). They’ll be selfless and go the extra mile to help others, and their positive energy and outlook must be infectious.
“This idea was conceived with a crew of netty girls and Kelly on St Patrick’s Day,” Hoshek-Delaney says.
Hutton is stunned by all the honours that will carry her name. “It’s been amazing to go out knowing you have so much respect and love, in the sport that I love,” she says. “It’s pretty special that people recognise the benchies – they aren’t the heroes on the court, but someone always needs their drink bottle filled.”
Slip away like a cat
For the past few weeks, Hutton has survived on ice blocks, soup, custard and ice cream. “It’s like every girl’s dream – I don’t have to do the mahi, but I can eat the treats. It all comes true in the end,” she laughs.
She’s been at home in Christchurch, managing the pain and nausea, surrounded by family and visiting friends (“It’s like a living wake”). She’s tossed out the photos she doesn’t like and organised her funeral service – the celebrant will be Constable Keith de Dulin (famous with his puppet police dog, Sniff, to bring road safety messages to our TV screens). He worked with her dad, Roger – a policeman for 40 years – who died aged 57 of pancreatic cancer.
“I literally don’t have a care in the world now, other than slipping away like a cat at the end,” she says.
There’s so much I’ve learned from Kelly Hutton over the past four years. Her constant courage, her humour in the bleakest times, her determination to live life to the fullest, her passion for the world around her, her candid and open attitude to her illness and dying, and finding peace at the end.
And the importance of “benchies” in your life – those team-mates happy to warm the bench, to scream from the sidelines, to fill the water bottles, to bring a different point of view. And away from the court, those people who always have your back, supporting you, challenging you to think differently and brightening your day – and who are always just a video call away.
I so value the friendship we’ve built over the past four years, Kelly. I’ll miss you terribly.
* Postscript: Kelly Hutton ‘slipped away like a cat’ on October 20, 2023.