Denis McEnearney becomes 49th case study in Cabbage Tree Road suspected cancer cluster investigation

UNEASY: Denis McEnearney fears his leukemia and prostate cancer could have been triggered by the 12 years he spent living and working on contaminated Cabbage Tree Road. He is the 49th cancer sufferer to emerge following a Herald investigation. Picture: Simone De Peak
UNEASY: Denis McEnearney fears his leukemia and prostate cancer could have been triggered by the 12 years he spent living and working on contaminated Cabbage Tree Road. He is the 49th cancer sufferer to emerge following a Herald investigation. Picture: Simone De Peak

At first, Denis McEnearney thought it was an innocent catch up between old friends.

Keith Sneddon, a solicitor from Williamtown, called him out of the blue. He suggested they meet for a long lunch, on a Friday. 

"After lunch, we took his dog down to the back of the park," Mr McEnearney recalled. "We spent most of the afternoon together. And that was when he let me know what was going on." 

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Since moving from Williamtown's Cabbage Tree Road to Weston about two years earlier, Mr McEnearney hadn't given his former home much thought. 

He was stunned to learn that at least 39 of his old neighbours had been diagnosed with cancer, including Mr Sneddon's late wife, Lorelei. 

But it was only as he sat in his car and saw the faces laid out in the Newcastle Herald that it occurred to him that he too, should be there. For the 78-year old, it was nearly too much to bear. 

"I broke down in tears," he said. "I was shaking." 

Mr McEnearney fears it's only a matter of time for him, as he battles chronic lymphocytic leukaemia.

The diagnosis came as a cruel blow, a few years after he recovered from prostate cancer. The cancers were unrelated, but both developed during the 12 years that he lived on Cabbage Tree Road. 

Before his illness, Mr McEnearney had kept a frenetic pace. He was a sailor who won national titles and raced the Sydney to Hobart four times. He was a keen rugby player until his 30s, when he took up competition squash. In his 50s, he began breeding and rearing race horses. 

"I was blessed with good health all my life up until I moved to Williamtown," he said. "I thought I was going to live forever, to be honest. That's all shattered now." 

He had no family history of either cancer. 

“Most of my siblings are in their 80s and 90s now and they’re all as good as gold,” he said. 

Mr McEnearney is among dozens of people who have come forward since the Herald's original investigation into cancer cluster fears on the five-kilometre stretch. The toll now sits at 49 cases in 15 years, among people who have lived or spent significant amounts of time on Cabbage Tree Road's hobby farms and acreages. 

During his time there, Mr McEnearney would often occupy himself helping his neighbours with their farm work. As a last favour for Mr Sneddon, Mr McEnearney cleared out a choked drain flooding his property. 

Independent testing would later show the drain contains staggering levels of toxic firefighting chemicals, that – unbeknownst to residents – have been leaching from Williamtown RAAF base for decades.

Overseas studies have shown the chemicals are carcinogenic in animals.  

For Mr McEnearney, the revelations were “distressing”. 

“Looking at the evidence, it looks very much like there’s some problem in the area and it does look like it’s coming from the underground water,” he said. 

Mr McEnearney is apprehensive about the future.  The blood tests for his leukemia treatment, initially every 12 months, are now every three. 

“Now sometimes if they see a spike, they send me back within a week. I think it’s sneaking up on me … I know I’m heading for problems,” he said. ​