Hardus Nel thought he would never play rugby again after being diagnosed with stage-three testicular cancer in April last year.
The FNB CUT Ixias No 8 played in the Bloemfontein derby against FNB UFS Shimlas before the 2020 FNB Varsity Cup was called off due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
He had been suffering from back pain for a while, but put it down to a rugby niggle.
Nel sought medical attention during the lockdown and after several tests was told that he had stage-three testicular cancer that had spread to his stomach.
Nel had tumours, the biggest of which was 13cm, so he required an operation and was in hospital for almost six weeks. He then underwent four months of intense chemotherapy in Port Elizabeth – every day from Tuesday until Friday.
“It was very tough because the chemo makes you sick and weak, and you don’t really want to do anything,” he recalls. “Travelling back and forth was difficult because I would spend about four hours a day in the chemo chair and the rest of the day in bed.”
Battling cancer is daunting enough in normal circumstances, but having to do so alone during a pandemic was as much a mental battle as it was a physical one for Nel.
“It was tough because you can’t go anywhere and I obviously wasn’t allowed visitors,” says the 23-year-old.
In mid-October, two weeks after his last chemotherapy session, Nel was told he was in remission and cleared to play rugby again almost six months after his diagnosis. However, he had lost 30kg, so he was nowhere near ready, especially as a forward.
“Between the chemo sessions, I started doing push-ups and walking. In October, when I heard I was cancer-free, the furthest I could jog was 500m before I started cramping and couldn’t walk.”
When Nel came out of hospital, he told his parents he didn’t think he would play rugby again.
“You have a very negative mindset, but my family tried to keep me positive,” he says. “Everyone kept asking how it’s going and when I’m coming back, so I decided to at least try.”
Nel credits the FNB CUT squad and management for his comeback.
“Rugby helped a lot because the coaches kept me in the squad and the team sent me motivational videos. When I came back, they kept on motivating me and challenging me, which helped me stay active and try to get back to where I was.”
After re-joining the squad in mid-October, FNB CUT strength and conditioning coach Michael Shaw helped Nel in the gym and with extra fitness in a bid to get him in shape in time for the start of the 2021 season.
Nel’s hard work paid off because he now weighs 98kg, which is 4kg more than he weighed in last year’s competition.
The longest Nel has played so far this season is 40 minutes against FNB UCT Ikeys, which he says was “fun”.
“I’m very happy to be back,” he adds. “I can’t believe I ever thought I wouldn’t play rugby again. I just want to improve every time I play and play a bit longer every time.”
Photos: Gallo Images/Mlungisi Louw/Catherine Kotze/Varsity Cup