Bowel cancer survivor who found a passion for rugby

Hazel Stewart with the trophy
Hazel Stewart with the Women's National Plate trophy [Hazel Stewart]

A woman who started playing rugby for the first time after surviving bowel cancer has helped her local team win a national competition.

Hazel Stewart, 41, from Thurso, was diagnosed with cancer five years ago and lost her dad to the same disease while she was still undergoing treatment.

Ms Stewart, who teaches early learning and childcare at the University of the Highlands and Islands, had struggled with stomach pains for months before her cancer was spotted.

Last month, the mum-of-one was part of the Caithness Krakens rugby team that beat Uddingston RFC to lift the Women's National Plate at Murrayfield in Edinburgh.

Hazel Stewart playing in Women's National Plate final
Hazel runs with the ball in the Women's National Plate final in Edinburgh [Hazel Stewart]

Ms Stewart said: "Rugby is something I never thought I'd take up.

"It came just at the right time in my life and to be surrounded by this amazing group of strong, supportive women - I get so emotional talking about it."

Ms Stewart has spoken of her experience of cancer to support Bowel Cancer UK new campaign Tell Your GP Instead.

Before her cancer was diagnosed she had stomach pains on and off for about 18 months, but initially believed she had a food intolerance.

A doctor also suspected this might be the likely cause of her pain.

But Ms Stewart's health deteriorated around the time of her son's sixth birthday in March 2019.

She thought this time it was because she had been busy at work and also helping out on her parents' farm.

"When I look at pictures of myself from that time I look so pale," she said.

Hazel Stewart playing in Women's National Plate final
Hazel in a scrum during the Women's National Plate final [Hazel Stewart]

After several days having no energy to leave her bed, Ms Stewart was rushed to hospital with a fever and stomach pain.

It was discovered she had sepsis and a scan found a perforation in her bowel.

She said: “There was no mention of cancer at that stage.

“I had to go into hospital to get the sepsis under control for two weeks and then received a colonoscopy.”

During the check of the inside of her bowels, Ms Stewart said: “I remember watching the screen and seeing something really nasty.

"The colonoscopy showed pre-cancerous cells, but the tumour had narrowed my bowel so much they couldn’t complete the procedure.”

Hazel and her dad
Hazel and her dad Peter, who died from bowel cancer [Hazel Stewart]

Ms Stewart went on to have surgery to remove 80% of her large colon followed by 12 sessions of chemotherapy.

During this time, her dad Peter, 75, was also diagnosed with bowel cancer. He died in September 2019.

Ms Stewart said: "He was a farmer and had been a fit man. In the end it was too late for him.

"It was the same surgeon I had who phoned me to tell me Dad's cancer had spread.

"I wasn't able to see Dad that much because of my treatment and I wasn't allowed into hospital wards.

"It was a really difficult time."

Ms Stewart completed her chemo before Christmas 2019 and was given the all-clear the following year.

Soon after she was encouraged to take up rugby.

Hazel Stewart
Hazel plays for Caithness Krakens [Hazel Stewart]

"My marriage had broken down after the all clear, and I was going to the gym," she said.

"Caithness Krakens was just starting up and one of the girls at the gym said I should give it a go.

"I'd watched Scotland games, but never really been into it and I didn't really know what it was about and had never played a team sport before.

"But it has fitted into my life so well."

After some Sunday training sessions, Caithness Krakens was formally set up in 2021 and is now preparing for its third competitive season.

Teams across Scotland compete in the Women's National Plate.

Ms Stewart said it was exciting to reach the final.

"Edinburgh is a long way from Caithness but we took down a big support," she said.

"At 41 I'm one of the oldest ones but rugby is a sport for everybody, especially at grassroots level.

"We all have a different job to do on the pitch."

What is bowel cancer?

Bowel Cancer UK says it is the fourth most common cancer and affects men and women.

The charity says it is treatable.

Its Tell Your GP Instead campaign urges anyone experiencing bowel cancer symptoms to contact their GP and ask for an at-home test.

The campaign will be running from May 2024 to early 2025

The symptoms of bowel cancer can include:

  • Bleeding from your bottom

  • Blood in your poo

  • A change in your pooing habits. You might be going more or less often, or have diarrhoea or constipation that might come and go

  • Weight loss

  • Feeling very tired all the time

  • A pain or lump in your tummy

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