sorrow on
Cabbage Tree Road

By Carrie Fellner

To her family, Boronia Howell was “the angel on earth that we knew”.

They were shattered when she was diagnosed with lymphatic leukemia at the age of 64.

She fought the disease courageously for over a decade before losing her battle in 2003.

Just over a year later, Ms Howell’s husband Ted succumbed to prostate cancer that had spread to his brain.

Then her brother, Kevin Thomas, was struck down by same type of leukemia she had suffered. The family thought it was odd.

Even to the doctors, it seemed too unlikely to be a coincidence.

“They went through a lot of tests to try and find a genetic connection but they found nothing,” Ms Howell’s daughter, Robyn Miles, said.

“They were hoping there might of been a connection because it would have given them some insight into the illness.”

Ms Miles herself battled cervical cancer in her mid-20s and her brother, Ted, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2005.

The only thing all five of them had in common was the time they’d spent at the family farm on Cabbage Tree Road in Williamtown, just north of Newcastle.

“It was kind of the hub for the family,” Ms Miles said. “We all congregated there.”

Robyn Miles and Ted Howell Junior and, background, Boronia and Ted Howell Senior. 

Robyn Miles and Ted Howell Junior and, background, Boronia and Ted Howell Senior. 

Their story is not unique on this sparsely populated stretch, a collection of mostly hobby farms and acreages.

Locals have long commented on the ‘tremendous’ amount of cancer on the road.

“You’re better off counting the people who haven’t had cancer rather than the ones who have,” long term resident Gary Robertson said.

But even they have been startled at the exact toll.

A Fairfax Media special investigation has found at least 39 people who have lived on a five-kilometre section of the road - or in one case, spent significant amounts of time there - have battled cancer in the past 15 years.


There were ten cases of breast cancer, seven of prostate cancer, five of bowel cancer, three of stomach cancer, three of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, two leukemias and two liver cancers over the time period, as well as individual cases of melanoma, lung, pancreatic, tongue and testicular cancer.

Another person had a rare type of cancerous neck tumour.

Each cancer survivor,or relative of a resident who has died, has agreed to supply their details to Fairfax Media as calls mount for a formal investigation into what is feared to be a cancer cluster in the midst of the small community.

To residents, a disturbing element is Cabbage Tree Road’s location, immediately south of the Williamtown RAAF base.

It cuts through the heart of a plume of toxic contamination, from chemicals used in firefighting foams by the air force for around four decades from the 1970s.

The poly- and per-fluoroalkyl chemicals, suspected carcinogens also known as PFAS, continue to be flushed off the base by a network of open drains.

The drains snake through properties on Cabbage Tree Road and eventually empty into Fullerton Cove and the Hunter River. But on the days it rains, the foul water spills over and floods the low-lying farms, turning paddocks into swamps.

The largest of them, Dawson’s drain, crosses the road just metres from homes. Five people who have lived or stayed at the two properties either side of it have developed cancer since 2009, the youngest in his 30s.

It was Luke Jordan’s wife that noticed the bulge in his neck in 2013 and pressed him to see the GP.
Mr Jordan, now 36, was informed the growth was malignant. But his oncologists couldn’t tell him what it was; they had never seen a cancer like it before.

“Even the specialist said it’s a bit of doozy,” he recalled.

Mr Jordan’s mother, Irene, remembers how he delighted in catching frogs in the drain as a child. One day, he asked her if he could go fishing.

She agreed, oblivious to the risk.

“I would tell him not to come back until he’d caught something,” she said.

Within a year of her son’s illness, Ms Jordan was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had barely finished chemotherapy when her sister, Marie Cadogan, discovered she had bowel cancer.

“She died, just like that,” Ms Jordan remembers.

The pair had been inseparable, often sharing in the spoils from her vegetable patch at the Cabbage Tree Road farm.

The family moved away and Gaylene Brown, a horse riding teacher, took up residence in the home.

2015 was a difficult year: she suffered uncontrollable vomiting for several months. Last year, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I chased up my birth mum to let my sisters know, but none of them have had breast cancer,” she said.

Ms Brown maintains that she will only draw a link between her cancer and environmental factors with scientific proof.

But she was surprised to learn of the number of other women on the road with breast cancer.

“You’ve got to wonder if there’s clustering here,” she said.

On the other side of the drain lived Ms Sneddon, who died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2011 at the age of 55.

Just over a year after she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Lorelei Sneddon finally booked the New Zealand trip that had always been on her bucket list.

On the second day of the holiday, the 55-year-old set out from Christchurch with her husband, Keith.

The pair had a “lovely dinner” together in Timaru.

But by 11pm that night, Ms Sneddon was in hospital. A week later, she was dead.

The softly-spoken nurse left behind her husband and two daughters.

<h10>ERIC MOXEY</h10><br>
<h12>2004: died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 74 </h12><br>
<h11>"My dad and I and my brothers were always in the water growing up," <br> 
- Eric Moxey’s son Neil </h11><br>
Eric Moxey was a farmer who lived and worked on Cabbage Tree Road in the 1970s. He is remembered by neighbours as a community-minded man who was at one stage the president of the Rotary Club. Mr Moxey’s son Neil said his father moved away because of poor drainage that left the earth waterlogged and swampy. Mr Moxey passed away of pancreatic cancer in Parkwood in Queensland. His wife, Marea Moxey, died in April. 
*Photo courtesy of the Raymond Terrace and District Historical Society
<h10>LEANNE RYAN</h10><br>
<h12>2016: diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 54</h12><br>
<h11>"The type of cancer I got usually affects women that have not had children, but I successfully breastfed four kids."</h11><br>
It just went "bang, bang, bang" is how Leanne Ryan describes the period after a mammogram picked up a tumour in her breast last year. She had the tumour removed soon after and embarked on a course of radiotherapy. Ms Ryan now lives in Raymond Terrace, but between 2013 and 2016, lived in two different properties on Cabbage Tree Road. She grew her own vegetables and would collect eggs from the chooks. 
She was "very shocked" to discover the number of other women who have had breast cancer on the road.
<h10>IRENE JORDAN</h10><br>
<h12>2013: diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 65</h12><br>
<h11>"Of course I wonder about it. Everybody wonders about it ... I am relieved I got out of there."</h11><br>
When Irene Jordan lived on Cabbage Tree Road for five years, she thought it strange how often her horses were struck down by illness.  It was after she had relocated to Tanilba Bay in the early 2000s that Ms Jordan was diagnosed was breast cancer. She had to undergo a double mastectomy. Her son and her sister, who both stayed with her at the Williamtown property, have both developed cancer in the last four years.
<h10>LUKE JORDAN</h10><br>
<h12>2014: diagnosed with a rare type of cancerous tumour in his neck at the age of 33</h12><br>
<h11>"They couldn’t tell what type of cancer it was ... even the specialist said it’s a bit of a doozy."</h11><br>
As a child, Luke Jordan lived at a property on Cabbage Tree Road for a period of about 12 months. He would spend holidays at the acreage for three or four years after that. He used to catch frogs in the contaminated drain that ran alongside the homestead and eat from his mother’s vegetable patch. Three years ago, he discovered a cancerous tumour in his neck. He has recovered after multiple operations.
<h10>MARIE CADOGAN</h10><br>
<h12>2015: died from bowel cancer at the age of 65.</h12><br>
<h11>"She was more of a homebody than me ... but we had the same sense of humour."</h11><br>
Marie Cadogan and Irene Jordan were best friends, as well as sisters. Marie would stay over at Irene’s house on Cabbage Tree Road "all the time", sharing in vegetables from her garden. Ms Jordan was devastated when her sister was diagnosed with bowel cancer and died "just like that" two years ago.  "I stayed with her the whole time she was in hospital," Ms Jordan said. "A year later I had to go the Mater to visit some with a box of chocolates. I thought I would be fine, but as I walked in I dropped the chocolates. I just lost it."
<h10>JENNY ROBINSON</h10><br>
<h12>2016: diagnosed with two primary breast cancers at the age of 61</h12><br>
<h11>"It’s not just that we’re having cancer, we’re having cancer outside the norm."</h11><br>
When doctors cut a tumour from Jenny Robinson’s breast in 2016, they discovered another tumour underneath that hadn’t been picked up. It was unusual, because one was oestrogen positive and one was oestrogen negative, suggesting they were different types of breast cancer. The neighbours on both sides of the Robinsons have passed away from cancer. Their horse "withered away" at the age of 15. Their vet believed it was suffering seizures because of tumours on its brain. The couple live in the heart of the contamination plume and tests have shown they have firefighting chemicals in their blood at many times the national average.
<h10>TERRY ROBINSON</h10><br>
<h12>2002: diagnosed with melanoma at the age of 40 </h12><br>
<h11>"Six months ago we were painting fences and we’re watching the ground foam up in front of us ... that’s not a natural occurrence."</h11><br>
In 2002 Terry Robinson had a melanoma that metastasized into his lungs. His doctors were surprised; usually shallow melanomas were caught before they had spread. They advised him to “get his affairs in order” because secondary cancers from melanoma did not respond well to chemotherapy. However the treatment worked and Mr Robinson went into remission. Mr Robinson initially did not believe his cancer could be linked to any environmental exposures, until a report found firefighters exposed to toxic chemicals at Fiskville in Victoria had a higher chance of melanoma.
<h10>LORELEI SNEDDON</h10><br>
<h12>2011: died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma at the age of 55</h12><br>
<h11>"I’m disappointed in the authorities. If we had known we wouldn’t have had 
the children under the 
sprinklers."<br> - Keith Sneddon
Lorelei Sneddon was a nurse who met her husband Keith, a lawyer, at a social function. The pair moved to Williamtown in 1982 and raised their two daughters at a property on Cabbage Tree Road. They had chooks and would use bore water on their vegetables. When Ms Sneddon found out her non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was terminal, she booked a bucket-list holiday with her husband to New Zealand. She died during the holiday. Five of the Sneddon’s neighbours have had cancer in the last five years. A heavily contaminated drain runs between the properties and Mr Sneddon now wonders whether there could be a connection to the death of his wife.
<h10>GAYLENE BROWN</h10><br>
<h12>2016: diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 56</h12><br>
<h11>"You’ve got to wonder if there’s clustering here."</h11><br>
Gaylene Brown runs a popular riding school on Cabbage Tree Road and has been at her property for the last 15 years.  In 2015 she suffered uncontrollable vomiting for months on end. Only a few months after she recovered with medication, a routine mammogram picked up a tumour in her breast.  She does not want to blame her illness on contamination in the area without scientific proof. But she worries that if she were to become sick again, she would not be able to sell her property to fund the treatment. “We’ve got a gun held to our head,” she said.
<h10>JOHN HILL</h10><br>
<h12>2005: diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 60</h12><br>
<h11>"I got the rotten cancer here, I reckon. A lot of girls up and down the road have had the cancer. Michelle’s worried she will get it one day ... we all are, you know?"</h11><br>
It has been about six years since John Hill was declared cancer free, but he flinches when asked about the chemotherapy that cured him of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He was hooked up to a “bag of pus”, he recalled, like injecting “pure poison” into your body.  His wife had to leave him alone in their house on Cabbage Tree Road until the effects wore off. A week later, the process would begin again. “That’s where I start crying. I’d be spewing all the way to the hospital,” he said.
<h10>WARREN MUNRO</h10><br>
<h12>2011: diagnosed with prostate cancer at the age of 60</h12><br>
<h11>"I’m at the end of my tape measure anyway, but if I had kids, I’d be really worried."</h11><br>
Warren and Shirley Munro are from the old guard of Cabbage Tree Road, moving to the area 30 years ago.  Their cows graze next to a drain that overflows in times of heavy rain. A few of them have been "real sickly". Mr Munro gestures towards a bulge in the neck of one cow. He believes it’s developed a tumour in the last few weeks. Prostate cancer is a disease of men and dogs, according to Mr Munro. But he doesn’t rule out that the contaminants could have interfered with his immune system. "Everyone has the potential for it [cancer] but you wake up in the morning and your immune system knocks it out," he said.
<h10>LESLIE 'TEX' FACER</h10><br>
<h12>2005: died of bowel cancer at the age of 66</h12><br>
<h11>"Dad’s tumour did not react like normal bowel cancer tumours. The doctors believed his cancer was environmental, not hereditary."</h11><br>
Commander Leslie 'Tex' Facer was first diagnosed with bowel cancer in 1997. His daughter Kim-Leeanne King remembers how hard he battled the disease. But each time "it came back more and more severe". Mr Facer spent from early in the morning until after dark outside on the family’s farm, which backs onto the RAAF base and airport land. Ms King and her sister both had genetic testing to see if the family had a pre-disposition towards bowel cancer. But the tests came back negative.
<h10>COLIN NORTHAM</h10><br>
<h12>2004: died of liver cancer at the age of 64 </h12><br>
<h11>"He felt alright and then he started swelling up with all this fluid ... he got told he only had three months to live,"<br>
     - Mr Northam’s son.</h11><br>
Colin Northam purchased his property on Cabbage Tree Road from a close friend several decades ago. According to his son, Mr Northam was "fanatical" about his vegetable garden, growing tomatoes and cucumbers. A drain, that was later filled in, ran along the rear of his property. Mr Northam’s son he did not attribute his father’s cancer to any one thing.
<h10>DAWN ROBERTS</h10><br>
<h12>2011: died of bowel cancer at the age of 68</h12><br>
<h11>"The jets fly over at 10.30 at night. My other half smells the fuel and she doesn’t like it much,"<br>
- Brett Roberts, who still lives at his mother Dawn’s old house on Cabbage Tree Road.</h11><br>
Dawn Roberts, a hairdresser, was well known around Williamtown. She was gifted at theatre and a Justice of the Peace. Her son, Brett, said his mother suspected the environment and smells around the house could be to blame when she developed bowel cancer. However her surviving husband doesn’t believe there is a connection. Dawn’s mother, Alice, also lived on Cabbage Tree Road and passed away from breast cancer in her 70s.
<h10>WOMAN, NAME WITHHELD</h10><br>
<h12>2013: diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 41</h12><br>
<h11>"I had an infiltrating carcinoma which is rare in young people. Usually people only develop those at 60 or 70 years of age."</h11><br>
This woman, who did not wish to be identified, has lived on her Cabbage Tree Road acreage for around 11 years. After being diagnosed with breast cancer she was forced to undergo a double mastectomy, along with four rounds of chemotherapy. She had no family history of the disease, and the type of cancer was rare in people her age. She was surprised to discover a friend who lived a few houses down also developed breast cancer last year.
<h12>2016: diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 49</h12><br>
<h11>"When you start you’re in shock. Then you get into this phase of right, we’ve got this thing and we’ve got to attack it. Then the depression sets in."<br> - Greg Gilchrist, Michelle’s husband.</h11><br>
You can nearly see airport hangars from the Gilchrist’s home at the top of Cabbage Tree Road. But Ms Gilchrist doesn’t leave the house much these days. Some days she sleeps for up to 18 hours. She is part of the way through a gruelling three years of chemotherapy to treat her leukemia. Ms Gilchrist, who used to work at the Enigma dress shop in Hamilton, says it does cross her mind that her illness could be linked to the contamination around the RAAF base.
<h10>WALLACE GRAY</h10><br>
<h12>2002: died from stomach cancer at the age of 61</h12><br>
<h11>"It was a nasty one ... he died within six or eight weeks of diagnosis."<br>- Mr Gray’s wife Mabel.</h11><br>
By the time doctors detected Wallace Gray’s the tumour, where the oesophagus meets the stomach, it was too late.  Losing the "soulmate" she had been with since the age of 19 was devastating for his wife Mabel. She doesn’t know if there could be a connection to the contamination but remembers her husband spent a lot of time outside using the bore water on their 20 acres. "He was the most loveable person. He would help anybody," Ms Gray said. She has since left Williamtown.
<h10>SUZANNE QUICK</h10><br>
<h12>2017: diagnosed with non Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 50.</h12><br>
<h11>"It’s a very aggressive cancer. After I have the bone marrow transplant it will be six to 18 months before I can go back to work."</h11><br>
Earlier this year, when Suzanne Quick visited her doctor over a “terrible pain” in her shoulder, the GP didn’t think it was anything sinister. Ms Quick was treated for rheumatoid arthritis, but it did little to dull the pain. Her doctors grew concerned. Scans followed and confirmed the worst: she had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The aggressive cancer has spread to her bone marrow, causing fractures in her hip and shoulder. Once she recovers from chemotherapy she will require a bone marrow transplant.
<h10>RAELEEN RUSSELL</h10><br>
<h12>2016: diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 61.</h12><br>
<h11>"Our main concern is that I had my two sons and a grandchild living with us as well,"<br>- Brian Russell, Raeleen’s husband.</h11><br>
Raeleen and Brian Russell left their Cabbage Tree Road property in 2007, relocating to New Lambton. They were alarmed to discover the rate of cancer in their former neighbourhood.Raeleen was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, and is recovering from a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Things are “still a bit tough”, but improving, her husband Brian admitted. Mr Russell quizzed a doctor over whether his wife’s health problems could be connected to the contamination of their former home.
<h10>BORONIA HOWELL</h10><br>
<h12>2003: died of leukemia at the age of 76.</h12><br>
<h11>"She was the strongest woman. Everyone that knew her loved her. She was the angel on earth that we knew."<br> -Ms Howell’s daughter, Robyn Miles.</h11><br>
Boronia was the beloved matriach of a large family, who would congregate at her farm on Cabbage Tree Road. A large drain ran through the property and on warm days, they would often end up “in the drink”. Her children were shattered when Ms Howell was diagnosed with leukemia in her 60s, but she outlived her prognosis by about eight years. Ms Howell’s brother, husband and two of her children have also had cancer. Doctors suspected a genetic connection because her brother, Kevin Thomas, died from the same type of leukemia. However extensive testing failed to find a link.
<h10>TED HOWELL SNR</h10><br>
<h12>2004: died from prostate cancer that spread to his brain at the age of 78.</h12><br>
<h11>"Dad was just a shell after mum died. We saw so much deterioration, mentally and emotionally. He went from being the backbone of the family to become this tearful little old man."<br>- Robyn Miles.</h11><br>
Losing her parents Boronia and Ted to cancer in their 70s has always been hard for Robyn Miles to accept. Her grandparents, on both sides, lived well into their 90s. She had been hopeful her own mum and dad would have a similar innings. Ms Miles remembers that, at the hospital, her dying mother begged her to make sure her father got a bulge in his eye checked out. Within a week of the funeral, the test results came back: Mr Howell’s prostate cancer had spread to his brain. The tumour caused his behaviour to become increasingly erratic leading up to his death. "He’d be up wandering around all night, looking for mum," Ms Miles recalls.
<h10>TED HOWELL JNR</h10><br>
<h12>2005: diagnosed with prostate cancer at the age of 55.</h12><br>
<h11>"On reflection, if [the foam] is what they’ve been using for any amount of years, it would have gone through the drain system. On a wet day, it would have gone pouring through."</h11><br>
Ted Howell junior has "lovely memories" of visiting his parents at their Cabbage Tree Road farm, and even lived there himself at one stage. The family had "no inclination" they could have been exposed to toxic chemicals in a large drain running through the property. But Mr Howell has no doubt the water was coming from the RAAF base. "Sometimes it would be full, other times it would be just meandering, but it was always moving," he said. Mr Howell was diagnosed with prostate cancer about seven years ago but has recovered with radiotherapy.
<h10>WOMAN, NAME WITHHELD</h10><br>
<h12>2013: diagnosed with bowel cancer at the age of 72.</h12><br>
<h11>"It’s sort of mixed. It’s sad that other people are affected, not just Mum, but there’s comfort in knowing that Mum’s not the only one."<br>- the woman’s son.</h11><br>
It took this woman around six months to recover from major surgery in 2013 to remove a large tumour obstructing her bowel, as well as 11 lymph nodes. The cancer was slow growing but within 12 months, it had returned. Chemotherapy and radiation did little to halt its spread. The family made the heartbreaking decision to stop treatment last November and the woman, now in palliative care, has spent the last six months in "intense pain".  Over the years, the family have regularly eaten cows reared on their Cabbage Tree Road farm and their own vegetables. Floodwater from several kilometres away inundates the land, and in the 1980s, exasperation drove them to dig out their own drains by hand.
<h10>DANIELLE PROCTOR</h10><br>
<h12>2013: diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 36.</h12><br>
<h11>"I was absolutely shocked to see the amount of people in such a small radius."</h11><br>
A gym junkie who lifted weights nearly every day, Danielle Proctor was the picture of health when she was rocked by a cancer diagnosis four years ago. The survival rate for her rare type of cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the breast, was only about 15 per cent. Six cycles of heavy chemotherapy sent Ms Proctor into remission, but she was left with “aching bones” and barely able to walk. She never returned to the gym. Ms Proctor hasn’t ruled out exposure to contaminants on her property as a factor in why she developed the lymphoma.
<h10>DAVID VIAL</h10><br>
<h12>2013: diagnosed with prostate cancer at the age of 58.</h12><br>
<h11>"When I moved up, I said to the lawyers: ‘It’s close to Newcastle, close to the beaches, a couple of acres. What could possibly go wrong?’ "</h11><br>
David Vial describes his property as the busiest two-and-a-half acres in Williamtown. It’s where he keeps nearly 100 bee hives, a flock of sheep and harvests about 400 kilograms worth of garlic a year.  When he told his accountant he wanted to turn over $20,000 a year of primary produce on his little farm, she was incredulous. "She just looked at me and shook her head and said that’s not enough space. I said watch me," Mr Vial recalled wryly. Mr Vial has recovered from prostate cancer with radiation. He finds it "a bit weird" that he developed the cancer after moving to Cabbage Tree Road, with no family history of the disease.
<h10>RAYMOND ‘SAMBO’ LEARY</h10><br>
<h12>2007: died from a heart attack, with early onset bowel cancer, at the age of 65.</h12><br>
<h11>"He was pretty admired for his football, but to me he was just Pop. He was just generally a good bloke,"<br>- Mr Leary’s granddaughter, Katie Williams.</h11><br>
Ray Leary was a renowned greyhound breeder and talented stalwart of the Gateshead and Windale football teams. But he is best remembered for his generous nature. With his firebrand wife, Cavell, the couple would offer a meal and shelter to people "in a bad spot" at their Cabbage Tree Road property. Mr Leary died of a heart attack, but an autopsy showed he had early stage bowel cancer. The couple frequently suffered rashes on their legs from wading through their waterlogged farm. Ms Leary, who died of bowel cancer, developed gangrene and had to have part of her foot amputated before she died.
<h10>DENIS McENEARNEY</h10><br>
<h12>2008: diagnosed with prostate cancer at the age of 69. Is now being treated for an unrelated case of leukemia.</h12><br>
<h11>"I was so blessed with good health all my life until I moved to Williamtown."</h11><br>
Denis McEnearney proudly recalls being a "very healthy young buck". He was still fighting fit when he moved to Cabbage Tree Road in his mid-60s. But over the 12 years he spent on the stretch, his health deteriorated. He overcame prostate cancer, only to be diagnosed with an unrelated case of leukemia a few years later. He is still battling the condition. Mr McEnearney lived on several Cabbage Tree properties, giving the owners a hand with their farms. He cleared out Dawson’s drain by hand, to help his mate, Keith Sneddon, who was having issues with flooding. Independent testing has shown the drain contains staggering levels of toxic firefighting chemicals.
<h10>DAVID GORDON</h10><br>
<h12>2015: died at the age of 72 after battling prostate cancer for seven years.</h12><br>
<h11>"He would have spent a lot of time in the red zone, in the Salt Ash and Williamtown areas. He was quite active and his thing was bees. A lot of people would have known him,"<br>- Mr Gordon’s daughter, Catherine Cumming.</h11><br>
David Gordon was known around Williamtown as a man of many hats: juggling a steel fabrication business with his responsibilities at the Tomago Bowling Club and his hobby beekeeping operation. In the same year that Mr Gordon was diagnosed with prostate cancer, 2008, his former wife Judy was told she had an aggressive form of breast cancer. They had both spent at least two decades on a Cabbage Tree Road farm. Mr Gordon thought he had come through his battle but then the cancer returned. He gave up his farm for a smaller property in Raymond Terrace, where he passed away in 2015.
<h10>JUDY GORDON</h10><br>
<h12>2008: diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 60.</h12><br>
<h11>"I had a very aggressive cancer. I’ve been on trial drugs. I’m in remission now but they never say that you have a cure."</h11><br>
During the two decades she spent on a Cabbage Tree Road farm, Judy Gordon never suspected there could have been a problem with the land. The family used their bore water liberally: for irrigation, to fill up the swimming pool and even for drinking. After she split from her husband David, Ms Gordon moved to Newcastle. It was there she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. She has begun to question a link to her time in Williamtown, especially since she has no family history of the disease. Ms Gordon is in remission, but her greatest fear is now for her adult children. She worries about allowing them to play under the sprinklers while they grew up on the farm.
<h10>MAN, NAME WITHHELD</h10><br>
<h12>2007: diagnosed with prostate cancer at the age of 59.</h12><br>
<h11>"Obviously I have to get checked. We’re not sure if it’s hereditary or might have started with dad or who knows,"<br>– the man’s son.</h11><br>
This man, who did not wish to be identified, lived with his family on Cabbage Tree Road for about decade before moving away in the late 1980s. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer roughly 10 years ago, but has recovered with treatment. "We had a drain running down the edge of our property and all the kids used to go swimming in the puddles. It’s always in the back of your mind now," said his son, who grew up on the property but now lives in Merewether.
<h10>BRIAN DAVISON</h10><br>
<h12>2014: diagnosed with liver cancer at the age of 76.</h12><br>
<h11>"On Cabbage Tree Road we had town water, but the animals still drunk the bore water and we grew our own vegetables,"<br>- Mr Davison’s daughter, Liane Ryan.</h11><br>
Brian Davison was in his mid-30s and living less than a kilometre from Cabbage Tree Road, on Masonite Road, when he was diagnosed with bowel cancer. Treatment sent him into remission and he lived out the next three decades in relatively good health. But then, in 2014, came another blow: he was diagnosed with liver cancer. Mr Davison was living on Cabbage Tree Road at the time with his daughter, Liane Ryan. Ms Ryan finished treatment for breast cancer in January.
<h10>NEVILLE HAYWOOD</h10><br>
<h12>2015: diagnosed with esophageal cancer at the age of 70.</h12><br>
<h11>"The last thing I’d ever thought I’d get was cancer ... there was never any cancer in my family, as far as I know."</h11><br>
Neville Haywood is taking things day by day after a "nasty case" of esophageal cancer two years ago. He was forced to have part of his esophagus removed, but considers himself lucky to be alive. Before retirement, he worked as a chef on the RAAF base and in his free time would chase cattle at a farm on Cabbage Tree Road. He lived there for the better part of 30 years with his ex-wife, Sandra Haywood, who died from breast cancer in her 50s. Mr Haywood is now based in Tuncurry but is aware of several old neighbours have fought or died from cancer. He was skeptical when he first heard about the contamination of his old farm, because he’d been taught the sandbeds underneath Williamtown purified the water passing through. Now he fears that might not be true.
<h10>GREG WATERS</h10><br>
<h12>2011: diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 39.</h12><br>
<h11>"I went to give blood and my white blood cell count was low ... the next day I was in hospital having chemotherapy. My wife had to drive the car home so I could call my parents and tell them."</h11><br>
It was "absolutely a shock" for Greg Waters when he was diagnosed with leukemia in his late 30s. The father-of-two didn’t have any symptoms; he found out during a routine trip to the blood bank. 
Mr Waters initially didn’t think it possible when he heard another woman from Cabbage Tree Road had the same extremely rare type of leukemia. Less than 100 people are diagnosed with the disease in Australia each year. Mr Waters lived on Cabbage Tree Road and an adjacent street for about five years as a child. His brother, Cameron, recalls they spent most of their waking hours mucking around in the bush. "We used to play in the bore water all the time. That’s just what you did. We weren’t to know it was poison," Cameron Waters said.
<h10>GARY PRICE</h10><br>
<h12>2013: diagnosed with prostate cancer at the age of 66.</h12><br>
<h11>"We went through Hunter Genetics and Sydney Genetics and they said it must be some exposure, because it’s nothing genetic,"<br>- Mr Price’s daughter, Karen.</h11><br>
Gary and Nancy Price moved to Cabbage Tree Road in 1980, to give their identical twin daughters a rural upbringing. It was around a decade later their run of bad luck began. Nancy Price was forced to go under the knife to remove a large tumour from one of her ovaries, but made a full recovery. 
Then in 2013, Gary Price and one of their daughters, Karen, were struck down with prostate and breast cancer respectively. Mr Price is managing his condition with medication. The family investigated whether the cancer could be coming down the line, but tests at two labs both came back clear.
<h10>MAN, NAME WITHHELD</h10><br>
<h12>2015: diagnosed with tongue cancer at the age of 46.</h12><br>
<h11>"It definitely wouldn’t be surprising if it has contributed. I feel like it’s one of those things, if you’ve got a few factors that might contribute towards cancer then maybe the PFOS is just another one that pushes you over the edge,"- the man’s wife.</h11><br>
After this man was diagnosed with tongue cancer, it looked as though chemotherapy and radiation would grant him a textbook cure. Things were looking so good, in fact, that the doctors "weren’t even concerned" when a lump developed on the back of his head about a year later. But they didn’t anticipate how aggressive the cancer would be. Tumours have now been discovered in the man’s head, nose, spine and lungs. The father-of-three is exploring treatment options but is uncertain about what the future holds. His wife can’t help but wonder if there could be a link to the family farm on Cabbage Tree Road, where her husband was responsible for most of the mowing and outdoor maintenance.
<h10>KARNE PRICE</h10><br>
<h12>2013: diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 39.</h12><br>
<h11>"It’s happened to us and we want to move on, we don’t want to make it our life. But for my twin sister, if just makes her worry if her day is going to come. We would like to find out if there’s a possible link."</h11><br>
On top of a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation, Karen Price is under instructions to take drugs for the next 10 years to keep her in remission after a battle with breast cancer four years ago. Both her parents - who spent around three decades on a Cabbage Tree Road farm - have also been touched by cancer. Karen Price was at the property as a child until her mid-20s, and remembers it struck her as strange growing up how often horses and dogs would die unexpectedly along the road.
<h10>GRAIG COOMBES</h10><br>
<h12>2012: diagnosed with a vocal cord tumour and thyroid cancer at the age of 49.</h12><br>
<h11>"I had a grumbly voice out of nowhere. It was originally thought to be laryngitis but as it wasn’t responding [to treatment] after several weeks, the tests started. It was found to be a vocal cord tumour and thyroid cancer too.” "</h11><br>
Craig Coombes struggles to speak these days, after a cancer diagnosis led to the removal of one of his vocal cords and his thyroid in 2012. Mr Coombes is now based in Melbourne but lived on Cabbage Tree Road in the late 1980s, to be near his ill mother. He recalls spending time outdoors mowing the lawns and gardening, while the family was often gifted eggs by a neighbour. 
Mr Coombes was shocked to learn he may have been exposed to toxic chemicals there. His own cancer diagnosis was "the first thing" that crossed his mind. "Then when I saw the number of people with cancer, it became a bigger concern," he said.
<h10>KEN GRAHAM</h10><br>
<h12>2012: died of heart disease at the age of 70, after recovering from prostate cancer.</h12><br>
<h11>"He was quiet but he was a lovely man. Dear I miss him. You go to talk to him and he’s not there,"<br>-Ken Graham’s widow, Joan.</h11><br>
Joan Graham adored her husband Ken, and still sorely feels his loss five years after his death. Several relatives lived on Cabbage Tree Road when the couple built their home there about 43 years ago. Mr Graham worked "in the sand pit" out the back of the property, but was plagued by health issues in his later years. When he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, he was forced to undergo seven weeks of radiation treatment at the Mater hospital. The couple moved to Wooli on the north coast, where Mr Graham passed away in 2012.
<h10>MAN, NAME WITHHELD</h10><br>
<h12>2016: diagnosed with stomach cancer at the age of 80</h12><br>
<h11>"You hear all the stories of the cancers and you start to think ‘oh Jesus’,"<br>- the man’s son-in-law.</h11><br>
This man, who did not wish to be named, was diagnosed with cancer last Christmas after doctors found a tumour where the oesophagus meets the stomach. He was too old for surgery but has been in hospital for radiotherapy and chemotherapy. He spent around four decades on Cabbage Tree Road. His daughter lives in his old home and noticed the bore water changed colour a couple of years ago. "Now it’s got this potent odour," she said. "It used to be crystal clear."
<h10>GEOFF GRAHAM</h10><br>
<h12>2014: had prostate cancer at the age of 63</h12><br>
<h11>"It was a very aggressive cancer. I had no family history."</h11><br>
Mr Graham lived on Cabbage Tree Road for over a decade before he moved to Tomago in the mid-1990s.  Three years ago, he suffered an aggressive form of prostate cancer but has since recovered. He also worries about the chemical fallout he was exposed to when he lived opposite the smelter at Tomago. However he doesn’t blame living at either property for his illness.
<h10>JENNIFER SANSOM</h10><br>
<h12>2011: diagnosed with breast cancer in her late 50s.</h12><br>
<h11>"I would never pinpoint it as the thing that caused the cancer."</h11><br>
Jennifer Sansom is the daughter of Monty Sansom. She grew up on the family’s Cabbage Tree Road farm in the 1970s, often playing in the creeks and drains that cut through the property. Six years ago she underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy for breast cancer. She said she would be skeptical that contamination in her childhood home was the cause of the cancer unless there was proof. However she was sympathetic for the people who still live in the area.
<h10>CAVELL LEARY</h10><br>
<h12>2012: died of bowel cancer at the age of 69</h12><br>
<h11>"She was very funny. She was a character beyond characters,"<br>- Cavell Leary’s former neighbour Gary Robertson.</h11><br>
Cavell Leary was one of the "real characters" of Cabbage Tree Road, according to those that knew her. Locals recall that most of the times they saw her, she wasn’t wearing shoes. She lived near the top of Cabbage Tree Road for around three decades, with creeks carrying water off the RAAF base through her property. "When you look back and reflect on it, there was an unusually high rate of sickness there ... compared to a normal area," her son Shane Leary said.
<h10>MONTY SANSOM</h10><br>
<h12>2005: died of lung cancer at the age of 75 </h12><br>
<h11>"Neville and Monty, they were great blokes ... nobody thought of cancer or anything like that at the time,"<br>- Les Coxon, a former neighbour of Monty Sansom.</h11><br>
The Sansoms are one of the original farming families who settled on Cabbage Tree Road decades ago. Monty Samsom’s wife, Elsie, does not believe his cancer was linked to their time on the property. But Monty’s nephew, Shane Sansom, has concerns. He lived on the road and so did his father Neville, who died of stomach cancer in 1991 at the age of 54. "He was a big tough farmer, he was as hard as nails. Then he felt a bit crook and died," he said.
<h10>SANDRA HAYWOOD</h10><br>
<h12>2002: died of breast cancer at the age of 58</h12><br>
<h11>"She was as fit as a Mallee bull and then within a few months she was dead,"<br>-neighbour Gary Robertson.</h11><br>
Ms Haywood thought she had got the better of the breast cancer that she suffered in the 1990s. But when it came back with a vengeance in her bones, there was nothing that could be done.  Her son Stephen Kissell has moved to Orange but remembers five or six people on the street who had cancer when he was there. His mother spent a lot of time in the yard, "turning the dirt over." Neighbour Eileen Robertson remembers dropping around to Ms Haywood’s house as she underwent chemotherapy. She apologized because she wasn’t wearing her wig.
<h10>MAN, NAME WITHHELD</h10><br>
<h12>2014: developed testicular cancer at the age of 31</h12><br>
<h11>"It kind of hit us pretty hard when he got diagnosed. It looks like he’s going to be fine, but you always have that cloud over you."</h11><br>
The Herald spoke with the mother of this cancer sufferer, who did not wish to be identified. He grew up on Cabbage Tree Road eating beans, tomatoes and lettuce from the family’s vegetable garden, watered with their polluted bore. As a child, he also spent "many happy hours" playing in the drains and creeks that carry contaminated water off the RAAF base.
<h10>PATRICIA OLSEN</h10><br>
<h12>2016: diagnosed with lung cancer at the age of 67</h12><br>
<h11>"I feel so sorry for all the people that are living there now. They’ve worked hard, they’ve got no value on their property and they don’t know if they’re going to get cancer. It must be a terrible way to live."</h11><br>
Patricia Olsen feels fortunate that she has recovered well from surgery to remove a tumour from her lung. She needed to, as the sole carer for her daughter Alison, who has a disability. But it was a risky operation; at the same time as her cancer diagnosis, doctors discovered Ms Olsen had an untreated heart condition. They couldn’t take as much of the lung as they would have liked, because her heart couldn’t take it. Ms Olsen’s oncologists are optimistic about her prognosis but she must have regular scans to ensure the cancer hasn’t returned.
<h10>TERRY OLSEN</h10><br>
<h12>2015: died of secondary prostate cancer at the age of 69</h12><br>
<h11>"I think he thought he was over it [the prostate cancer]. But the he started getting this pain in his chest."<br>- Mr Olsen’s ex-wife, Patricia.</h11><br>
Even though he had recovered from prostate cancer, there were no immediate alarm bells for Terry Olsen when he started experiencing pain in his chest.
The former Cabbage Tree Road resident suspected it was something wrong with his heart. He was stunned when he learned that it was a secondary tumour in his back, pressing against his spine. "It was just reflecting through the front," his ex-wife, Patricia Olsen, said. "They took as much as they could to relieve the pressure, but I believe it spread to his liver and other places." The couple had lived on Cabbage Tree Road for several years in the late 1990s, before they went their separate ways.
<h10>MAN, NAME WITHHELD</h10><br>
<h12>2007: diagnosed with prostate cancer at the age of 65</h12><br>
<h11>"It was about 10 years ago I was diagnosed and now it’s coming back for the third time ... [But] I don’t think the RAAF base would have caused it."</h11><br>
From one of the original Cabbage Tree Road families, this man lived on the contaminated stretch until about 15 years ago, when he relocated to another suburb nearby. He is one of several family members to have been diagnosed with prostate cancer, including some relatives who haven’t lived on Cabbage Tree Road. He is confident the cause of his illness was genetic and not environmental.
<h10>DES MASLEN</h10><br>
<h12>2014: diagnosed with skin cancer at the age of 49</h12><br>
<h11>"It’s very scary. When your kids turn around and say ‘have I got something in my blood that’s going to kill me?’ It’s an impossible situation to be in. It’s disgusting."</h11><br>
Des Maslen struggles with what to say to his children Cameron and Simone, who are both fearful about having spent most of their childhoods on Cabbage Tree Road. Mr Maslen has found accommodation for his family in Medowie now, but the teenagers used to swim and take their little boat out in a dam at the back of their old place. The family’s bore water tested negative for toxic chemicals, but the dam has not been tested by Defence. Nor has a large drain that runs between his property and the RAAF base.
<h10>CHARLIE CAMPBELL</h10><br>
<h12>2016: died of brain cancer at the age of 75</h12><br>
<h11>"It’s very alarming when so many people in the area have got it [cancer]. Every morning I wake up and if I’m a bit tired that day, I think am I alright?"<br>- Mr Campbell’s daughter-in-law, Liz.</h11><br>
Since news of the number of cancer cases on their street broke, Liz and Greg Campbell have spent "many sleepless nights" wondering whether they should take on a second mortgage and abandon their property on Cabbage Tree Road. The revelations were particularly disturbing because of the death of
Mr Campbell’s father, Charlie, from a brain tumour last year. Charlie Campbell was at their property nearly every day from when they purchased it in 2001 leading up until his death: feeding, watering and washing down their trotters. Ms Campbell is anxious about the couple’s three young daughters, aged between 3 and 11. "For us, it’s heartbreaking," she said. "Our whole life has been tipped upside down."

When Fairfax Media independently tested Dawson’s drain, staggering levels of PFAS contamination were discovered.

The readings were among the highest ever recorded off the RAAF base, and up to 23 times higher than the levels authorities have reported in the drain.

The chemical perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) was found at 92 micrograms per litre, while perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) were detected at 44 and 4.2 respectively.

The results were more than 1900 times the combined safe limit for PFOS and PFHxS in drinking water(.07), and about 194 times the safe limit for recreational water (.7).

Defence stood by its results, saying it had tested the drain around 60 times in three years and was confident its figures were “representative” of concentrations.

A spokesperson said the discrepancies could have been related to differences in sampling techniques, difference in laboratory analysis methods, cross contamination or rainfall at the time of testing.

But Dr Steven Lucas from the University of Newcastle’s school of environmental sciences, who took the samples on behalf of Fairfax Media, said the latest readings warranted further investigation.

“We did it by standard sampling protocol,” he said.

"The fact we're getting a reading that high is of concern."

Debate over the health effects of PFAS chemicals has been another source of conflict. NSW Health maintains there is “no conclusive evidence” the contaminants cause any specific illnesses.

“Studies in laboratory animals suggest that PFAS may promote some cancers in those animals, but it is not clear if these results have any implications for human health,” a spokeswoman said.

But a world-leading expert warned it is “possible and indeed probable” the chemicals were carcinogenic.

During his 12 years living on Cabbage Tree Road, Denis McEnearney would often occupy himself helping his neighbours with their farm work.

He moved away in 2015, but as a last favour for his mate, Keith Sneddon, Mr McEnearney promised to fix "the water problem" on his acreage.

That involved entering and clearing the flood-prone Dawson's drain, choked with sediment and weeds.

Mr McEnearney, 78, broke down in tears after Mr Sneddon called him out of the blue last month, to inform him of the number of cancer cases on his old street and the concentrations of toxic chemicals in the drain.

In the time Mr McEnearney lived on Cabbage Tree Road, he developed prostate cancer and then an unrelated case of lymphatic leukemia. He is still battling the latter, and fears he only has a matter of time left.

"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.

Philippe Grandjean, an adjunct professor of environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Health, has led a series of studies indicating PFAS can suppress the body’s immune system.

When asked whether that could be one way elevated exposure could lead to increased cancer risk, Professor Grandjean said it was “entirely possible”.

“With immune dysfunction, the body does not pick up the abnormal cells that are spreading and developing into a cancer,” he said.

Professor Grandjean said population studies had not been conducted on a large enough scale to make a judgement about cancer, but his gut reaction was that people should minimise their exposure as much as possible.

It comes after a 2011 study found an “extraordinary” increase in breast cancer among Inuit women with a high exposure to the PFAS in Greenland.

Eva Cecilie Bonefeld-Jorgensen, a professor from the University of Greenland and expert for the Danish Environmental Protection Agency, found that hormone disruption by the chemicals may have contributed to the result.

Professor Grandjean's research has resonated with Kim-Leanne King, who is stranded on a property less than a kilometre from the RAAF base, with levels of contaminants in her bore water more than 500 times accepted health risk limits.

Last year, she was rushed to hospital gravely ill, from what had started out as a case of the flue. Tests showed her white blood cell count was remarkably low.

"They asked me the question, have you ever used IV drugs, because your immune system is like that of an AIDS patient," Ms King, who lost her father to bowel cancer, said.

"I burst into tears. I was so upset that someone would think that. And that my immune system was not fighting for me."

Across the road from Ms King, Jenny Robinson is just starting to get her hair back. She underwent chemotherapy after two tumours were removed from her breast last year.

"It was unusual, because one was oestrogen positive and one was oestrogen negative, suggesting they were different types of breast cancer," she said.

"It's not just that we're having cancer, we're having cancer outside the norm."

The neighours on either side of the Robinsons have passed away from cancer and their horse "withered away" at the age of 15. Their vet believed it was suffering seizures because of tumours on its brain.

"Six months ago we were painting fences and we're watching the ground foam up in front of us ... that's not a natural occurrence," Ms Robinson's husband Terry said.

Williamtown is set to be the focus of one of Australia’s first epidemiological studies on the chemicals, commissioned by the Department of Health and being conducted by researchers at the Australian National University.

Its final report is due to be handed down in 2020.

Professor of public health at the University of Sydney Bruce Armstrong.

Professor of public health at the University of Sydney Bruce Armstrong.

Professor of public health at the University of Sydney Bruce Armstrong will be advising on the study.

He urged residents of Cabbage Tree Road to wait for its results, labelling a second study a “sterile” exercise.

“It’s a bit of a coincidence, obviously, that this particular ‘cluster’ has popped up in the Williamtown area,” said Professor Armstrong, who led a major investigation into a cancer cluster at the ABC radio studios in Brisbane.

“Really the question is what’s being done in the planned investigation to be able to pick up the evidence you’ve uncovered, of what appears to be quite a large number of people developing cancer."

Professor Armstrong added that it might be important to include people who had lived in the area historically but had moved away.

But member for Port Stephens, Kate Washington, said three years was too long to wait for residents trapped on unsaleable properties.

“If we do, it’ll be too late for too many people,” shesaid.

“The awful facts speak for themselves. The government must act now to support residents to leave the red zone.”

For Ms Miles, her greatest fear is now for her children, now aged in their 30s.

Her daughter has already had a slew of health problems, including miscarriages, thyroid problems and Graves disease.

“That farm is my childhood and that’s where my children spent 90 per cent of their childhood,”she said.

“It’s turned something that was our fondest memory into our scariest one.”

Cancer Council Queensland head of research Professor Joanne Aitken cautioned that cancer was common and it was not unusual to see groups of cases occurring in an area by chance.

However she said the numbers supplied by the Herald did “seem high, particularly if they are the same type of cancer”

“The first step in any cancer cluster investigation is to answer one key question: are there more cases than you would expect, given the known background rate of cancer in that population?”