A North-East women’s football team has become champions, despite two players needing mastectomies. Now, they have a new goal – to fight for changes around women’s health. PETER BARRON reports

NO matter how England’s male footballers fare as the Euros get underway in Germany this week, it surely can’t compare with the special achievements of an amateur women’s team from the grass roots of County Durham.

What the Chester-le-Street Amazons have done goes way beyond football. Theirs is a victory for the human spirit.

Not only have they been crowned champions in Division One of the Durham County FA League – the biggest success in the club’s history – they’ve done it while rallying round two team members, in their twenties, who’ve undergone mastectomies.

The Northern Echo:

Now, the Amazons have a new goal: to use their triumph as a platform to campaign for changes in attitudes towards young women’s health.

“I don’t want any other young woman to go through what I went through,” says Lydia Ward, unable to hold back the tears. “Young people’s health is brushed aside too easily.”

Central midfielder Lydia and goalkeeper, Emma Henderson, are both recovering from mastectomies with the support of their team-mates and coaching staff.

Emma was 27, and working as a printer, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2022. She underwent a mastectomy the following month, and her eggs were frozen before she started six months of chemotherapy last year.

Surrounded by the love of her team-mates, she recovered well enough to play in most of the matches in the championship-winning season.

“They've been like a family – their support was amazing, and definitely helped me get through it,” says Emma.

“I was told I was too young to have breast cancer but, when it was diagnosed, I made sure I shared everything with the girls so they knew the signs.”

However, in Lydia’s case, it took four months to be diagnosed with cancer – because she was only 21 when she felt a lump in her breast in April last year. Despite it measuring 2.6cms, doctors initially dismissed it because of her age.

If she’d been 25, she’d have automatically had a core biopsy. Instead, she had to “beg” for a referral from her GP, who put it down to a bump from playing a contact sport.

“I was on high alert because of Emma’s experience,” recalls Lydia, whose dad, Shaun, is the team’s Head Coach. “But I was brushed aside because I was so young, and I begged for a referral. If it hadn’t been for Emma, I mightn’t have pushed so hard.”

Lydia finally got her referral and, after an ultrasound scan at hospital, was told it was a common fibroadenoma. A fine-needle biopsy, carried out by a consultant, concluded it was non-sinister.

Reassured, Lydia went on holiday to Cyprus in August, but the lump grew to five centimetres, and she called her GP when she got back. She was re-referred to the same hospital consultant, who told her “We’ll get it out”.

However, she later received a phone call saying a second opinion had been taken and, due to the speed of the lump’s growth, she was fast-tracked for an ultrasound and core biopsy on the same day.

A “borderline cancerous” phyllodes tumour was diagnosed in early September, and removed at the specialist sarcoma unit at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary on October 20. A week and a half later, Lydia was told that the lump was fully malignant, and a radical mastectomy was carried out in November, ten days before Lydia and partner, Adam, got the keys for their first home, in Pelton.

Before the operation, Lydia was top scorer, with five goals in five games. She kept watching her team-mates from the sidelines during her treatment, and was allowed to start retraining, on a non-contact basis, in February this year.

She played her first match back – in a victory against Horden on March 3 – coming on as a substitute to a round of applause.

“The first thing I did was chest the ball and there was a collective gasp,” she recalls, laughing at the memory.

Since then, she’s played in every game, with her mum, Joanne, among those cheering her on.

“The team spirit definitely helped me through it all – everyone was amazing,” says Lydia.

“Being able to talk to my team-mates, with lots of hugs, meant so much, and the fact that Emma had already been through it was a major factor.

“It’s surreal looking back. I remember thinking how strong and inspirational Emma was, but you think it will never happen to me.”

The Northern Echo: Head Coach Shaun Ward with Lydia Ward, left, and Emma HendersonHead Coach Shaun Ward with Lydia Ward, left, and Emma Henderson (Image: Peter Barron)

As Head Coach, Shaun has had to balance his feelings as a dad with his responsibilities to the team.

“Lydia insisted on me being the coach, but it’s hard to de-couple the two roles,” he explains. “Lydia and Emma are exceptional leaders, and our team talks created an incredible spirit.

“The scary thing is that if Lydia had been 25, she’d have had a core biopsy from the start, but because she was 21, she had to fight for a referral.”

Becoming league champions is “the pinnacle” for Amazons chair, Julie Scurfield, who founded the club in 2005 after watching sons, Billy and Charlie, playing in a junior match, and realising more needed to be done to encourage girls’ football.

She took her coaching qualifications, and formed her own girls’ team, with Lydia’s sister, Beth, as one of the core members. Having lost their first match 20-0, it was four years before they won, and it was Lydia who badgered Julie into forming a junior team.

From those small beginnings, there are now 13 Amazons teams, comprising more than 200 players. Beth, now 29, has clocked up 330 appearances, with Lydia already on 125.

“From day one, we wanted the Amazons to be about more than football, and what’s happened epitomises that. If there’s a team that could bond together and get through this – not once but twice – it’s the Amazons,” says Julie.

“Shaun deserves massive credit. He’s been part of the club from the start, and to lead a team to the title, while seeing his own daughter fight cancer, has been truly humbling.”

The Northern Echo:

Lydia, a graduate project manager, has now been given the all-clear, with no chemotherapy needed. She has a scan every three months, and the reconstruction process has begun.

Meanwhile, the club’s latest aim is to help champion key health messages. “The growth of women’s football can be used as a vehicle to spread the word,” declares Julie.

Lydia and Emma are determined to be at the forefront of that campaign – including giving talks to junior teams, and going into schools and colleges.

“My message to young girls is to know your body, don’t think you’re invincible, and don’t take 'no' for an answer if you feel something’s wrong,” says Lydia. “And to those in the health service, my message is 'please listen'. I don’t want sympathy – I want change.”

The championship trophy has been lifted high. Now, the focus is on raising awareness.