September 12, 2022

Dean Barker’s face and amazing American’s Cup career is familiar territory to the New Zealand public. But what you may not know about one of our greatest ever yachtsmen is his private and courageous fight with bowel cancer. And why he’s decided to partner with Bowel Cancer New Zealand to share his story and encourage others, especially those “too young to have bowel cancer”, to seek help and support.

It was in 2019 when Dean and his family were in living in America, and Dean was training with the America’s Cup team, that he first noticed blood in his stool. After a couple of weeks of doing what most of us do – hoping the problem will go away by itself – Dean spoke to the team doctor, who organised an appointment with a gastroenterologist. He initially booked a colonoscopy for three months, but for peace of mind, the team doctor brought this forward, and it took place within just five days.

“Of course, I was hoping the results would be normal, and I’d come out with a clean bill of health, but unfortunately, I was wrong, and the colonoscopy revealed a tumour in the wall of my colon”, Dean says.

So, over Thanksgiving weekend, when the rest of the country celebrated, Dean underwent surgery to remove the tumour and 23 lymph nodes, six of which showed signs of cancer.

The treatment was six months of chemotherapy, and Dean started his first round on New Year’s Eve. After which, life fell into a surreal kind of routine with fortnightly treatments and barely any time to recover before the next one started.

“Treatment started on a Monday, and my goal was to be well enough to sail on the Saturday. It was so good to have this to focus on, as it helped keep me going”, Dean recalls.

“The first 2 or 3 treatments didn’t feel too bad, but after that, it really took it out of me as the chemotherapy has a cumulative effect.”

It was around this time that Covid really hit, and because of restrictions on visitors accompanying patients for treatment, Dean had to undergo the remaining nine rounds of chemotherapy on his own, without the support of his family.

“It’s the most humbling experience you can imagine being amongst all kinds of people having treatment for all kinds of cancer, but the positivity and support I received from the staff at the hospital and my family was amazing.”

After his treatment finished, Dean returned to New Zealand, where he and his wife Mandy decided not to travel with the America’s Cup team anymore and to base themselves in Auckland for a more settled and less stressful life for their family.

Dean now has yearly CT scans and colonoscopies, along with regular blood tests. He is very thankful for his early diagnosis and grateful for his outcome. He knows if his colonoscopy had been scheduled for later as originally planned, the prognosis could have been very different. That said, the shock of the initial diagnosis is still hard for Dean to shake.

“The diagnosis came out of nowhere for me. I’ve no family history of this, and I was a fit and healthy guy in my 40’s. Why did I get it? What did I do? You question everything. Your diet, your lifestyle, but there’s no point. Sometimes things like this just can’t be explained, it’s the luck of the draw, and I’ve just had to accept that.”

Dean is now a proud ambassador for Bowel Cancer New Zealand, and although this very different kind of fame doesn’t sit easy for him, he knows it will be worth it. Despite being a quiet and private family man – Dean only told a few of his teammates he was undergoing treatment – he wants to get the message out there. Especially the misconception that bowel cancer is an older person’s disease.

Dean was just 46 when he was diagnosed, and although he’s not out of the woods yet, he knows that with bowel cancer, early diagnosis is key and feels “incredibly grateful” for the support and treatment he received.

“I’m working with Bowel Cancer New Zealand because if by sharing my story, I can help just one person to go and get checked out early, then it will be worth it.”

“Men are less likely to go to their doctor if they’re worried. And the old Kiwi attitudes of ‘harden up’ and ‘just get on with it’ don’t help. I want to change that. If something doesn’t feel right, go and get it checked out, no matter your age.”