Christiana Balogun knows something about resilience. 

When the Bristol Bears forward found a cancerous lump in her neck in the spring of 2022, she would never have believed she’d play for the Barbarians just 16 months later. 

After making over 50 appearances in five years with Wasps, the 26-year-old made the move to the West Country at the tail-end of the 2021/22 season. 

But Balogun didn’t even play one game in her new jersey before she was diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma – a cancer of the lymphatic system. 

“It almost happened too quickly for me to process what was going on,” Balogun said. “I was diagnosed with cancer and within a week I started intensive chemotherapy.  

“Up until the day I started treatment I was ready for someone to come in the room and say they’d made a mistake. 

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“I’d uprooted my life as an individual [moving to Bears], so I thought ‘OK, this has thrown a bit of a spanner in the works’.” 

Balogun only had preseason with her new club, team, and coaches before she began a three-month stint in the hospital, receiving intensive chemotherapy every day. She was miles away from her family and support system in High Wycombe but Bears prop Simi Pam proved to be her light in the dark. 

“I was trying my hardest to stay integrated in the team,” she said. “I didn’t really know anybody at that stage. 

“I’d only met Simi that pre-season, but I felt like she was another sister, like I’d known her for such a long time. I gravitated towards her very quickly.  

“She did things for me that I wouldn’t ever have imagined anyone I’d met just a couple of months ago to do for me.”

In January this year, Balogun received the all-important news that she was cancer free. Despite all the treatment and struggle, she never wanted cancer to define her in recovery and was immediately on a mission to re-discover her identity as a player. 

“I was so ready to get back on the rugby pitch, ready to go again,” Balogun explained. “But the way your body depletes when you’ve had chemo is different. 

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“I was an athlete three months before but now I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t run. 

“I wanted to regain my identity as an athlete again and I think the biggest challenge was for my teammates to see me as that too. 

“I’m an athlete not a cancer patient. Yes, I’m bald and I’ve got no hair and no eyebrows and no eyelashes but I’m one of you guys. 

“The support I got from Bears was amazing. Sometimes I’d get frustrated that maybe I wasn’t lifting as much or running as well or getting tired quicker and people were like ‘Chris, you’ve literally just finished treatment’”. 

“But I thought ‘please stop using it as excuse!’, I was so determined to get back on top.” 

Balogun’s fortunes started to reverse quickly and this summer she received an invitation that would cement her comeback – a call-up to the second ever women’s Barbarians tour for two victorious fixtures against South Africa and Munster. 

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“Oh my god! It was insane!” Balogun said. “Talking about this now sends a rush of buzz through my body. 

“I couldn’t believe it. Fiona Stockley [Barbarian Women team founder] called my phone and at first I thought she might not have meant to call my number.  

“I was very excited but lowkey panicking because at that point I hadn’t played a game since May 2022. How am I going to play for Barbarians?” 

“To be invited into such a special group and stand next to such important women in the game is crazy,” she added. 

“I didn’t realise being in an environment like BaaBaas would bring to the forefront what is most important. It’s easy to get lost in why you started rugby in the first place. 

“It brought back the enjoyment to rugby again. Feel good rugby, being creative. It gave me the opportunity to express myself.” 

Having made her rugby return a month ago, Balogun is grateful to Bears for their support through the ups and downs of the past year. 

“Playing again was so surreal,” she reflected. “I wish I could bottle up that emotion and unleash it every time I feel a bit off. 

“Elevate is one of Bears’ values and the girls do that for me. 

“They remind me I deserve to be here; I deserve to be in this environment despite the setbacks. They’ve done a good job at being by my side but not in a pitiful or patronising way. 

“It’s never a woe-is-me story when I speak about what I’ve gone through. When I speak about my experience, I feel really empowered because of the work that I’ve done to get myself to this point. 

“I don’t think this healing journey, whether its physically or mentally, has ever stopped. 

“I thought I was resilient before but Jesus Christ! This showed me a different level of what life can throw at you and what you need to do to get on the other side of it.” 

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