Dean Stoneman was poised to be the next Jenson Button but faced a terrifying race against 'young man's cancer'
20:56 GMT, 21 April 2012
20:56 GMT, 21 April 2012
In January last year, Dean Stoneman looked set to become the next big British name in motorsport. He had won the Formula 2 World Champion title and at just 20 years old was poised to enter Formula 1 having tested for Williams. He was about to join the ranks of driving legends Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button and Damon Hill.
And then he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. It was one of the most aggressive types, and by the time it was discovered, the cancer had spread. Secondary tumours riddled his abdomen, lungs and liver. Doctors told him he had a 50 per cent chance of surviving.
That he is not only alive today but taking his first tentative steps back into the world of racing is nothing short of a miracle. The day we meet, he is taking part in amateur car races at the Silverstone circuit, ‘just to keep his hand in’, explains his manager Steve Noakes.
Dean Stoneman, pictured at Silverstone, is ready to return to Formula 2 next year
‘The chemotherapy has caused some nerve damage so he has less feeling in his hands and feet, and his lungs are damaged. He needs to get his strength back. Next year he’ll be ready for Formula 2 again.’
Before Dean’s diagnosis there was a small team in place around the young driver. Headed by his property-developer father Colin, 45, it also included a publicist, fitness coach and web designer – all gearing up for his transition into Formula 1.
McLaren driver Jenson Button
Whether or not Dean will now achieve his potential, it is clear that all anyone working with him cares about is that he is well. Because, for a while, there was a real possibility he might not make it.
In 2009 he started to experience sore nipples – the first of a raft of problems dismissed by doctors. ‘I went to see my GP almost straight away,’ he says. ‘I’m not the type to hope things go away. But the doctor told me it was probably just because of normal hormonal changes.’
Shockingly, over the next 18 months he returned to his doctor ‘more times than I can count’ complaining of the same problem.
The condition, called gynecomastia, is common during puberty due to raised hormone levels.
‘In 99.9 per cent of cases it will be completely benign,’ says oncologist Dr Peter Simmonds, at Southampton General Hospital. ‘But it can be a sign of testicular cancer, as the chemicals produced by tumours can stimulate growth of breast tissue.’
Dean says: ‘Then there was the heartburn, which occurred all the time. I carried Gaviscon heartburn medicine everywhere. And I started to get spots on my back. I kept going back, but the doctor just said it was hormones.’
He also began to gain muscle, as the cancer was sending his testosterone levels soaring. ‘I wasn’t trying to put on weight. It was as if my body didn’t belong to me.
‘Around Christmas 2010, I was being sick every morning with blood, I was tired all the time and wanted to sleep all day. But the whole family had flu at the time, so the doctor just said it was probably that. Of course I was worried there was something more seriously wrong, but when you are reassured by a doctor that there is nothing to worry about, you believe them.’
All this time Dean was keeping up his training regime and, astonishingly, managed to win the FIA Formula 2 Championship.
Racing drivers today are in peak physical condition – endurance and strength are needed to pilot a vehicle travelling at up to 220mph for hours at a time. He spent two hours a day in the gym doing a combination of cardiovascular exercises, such as jogging or rowing, and weight-training.
Dean says: ‘I started getting pain in my arms and began getting breathless, which made running difficult. Then, in January 2011, I started to feel a sharp pain in my right testicle, going through into my stomach. And I could feel a hard lump in my stomach the size of a golf ball, just below and to the right of my tummy button. I showed Steve and my dad, and they told me to go to the doctor straight away.’
This time, Dean was immediately referred for an ultrasound of the testicles, a CT and full-body MRI scan and chest X-ray. These confirmed the worst: it was cancer.
‘My consultant at Southampton General Hospital sat down and listed all the symptoms I had experienced, before I even had a chance to tell him. Apparently the pain in my arms, the sore nipples, acne and heartburn were all classic signs of the type of cancer I had.’
Dean receiving the Formula 2 World Championship trophy from racing legend Damon Hill
Despite high-profile awareness campaigns, men still wait an average of three months before going to the doctor with symptoms of testicular cancer. It accounts for just one per cent of cancers in men – but it is the most common type of cancer for under-35s. About 2,000 new diagnoses are made a year and more than 95 per cent of patients are cured.
‘In about half of cases, this will be a painless pea-sized lump, and in the remainder no lump but pain or swelling in one or both testicles,’ explains Gus Seeberan, specialist nurse practitioner in testicular cancer. ‘In rare instances, patients don’t notice problems with the testicles first.’
Sadly Dean, who had raised the symptoms as early as he could, fell into the less fortunate category. Is he angry that doctors missed so many opportunities to diagnose him
Dean pauses, and frowns. ‘Obviously I was upset,’ he answers carefully. ‘So was my dad. But there
is no point thinking, “What if . . .” All I wanted to know was if they could make me better. They started me on chemotherapy that day.’
Dean had a rare sub-type of testicular cancer called choriocarcinoma. ‘These cancers are the ones most likely to spread into the blood,’ explains Dr Simmonds. ‘Dean had metastasis [secondary tumours] in his abdomen, which was the lump he could feel.
Boy racer: Dean aged 11 with a trophy
‘One was blocking his kidney and there were hundreds of tumours of varying sizes in his lungs, which is why he was short of breath. It was pretty bad. If we hadn’t started treatment, he could have died within a few days.’
Dean was hooked up to a drip supplying chemotherapy medication for 14 hours a day, five days a week, for 12 weeks. Progress is monitored partly by blood tests, which measure levels of chemicals produced by cancer cells, known as markers. After the first bout of chemotherapy, Dean’s markers started to increase again, so a second cycle was needed.
‘I did a lot of reading about the cancer,’ he says. ‘The worst thing was that I felt constantly bloated, as if I’d eaten a huge meal, which was due to the fluids being pumped into me. I barely remember the second cycle as I was asleep all day. It wiped me out. But at no point did I think I wouldn’t make it. On the first day of chemo, a nurse told me, “Never give up, because people who give up don’t make it.” So I didn’t.’
By last August, the cancer in his lungs and liver had disappeared and Dean had a six-hour operation to remove the largest tumours in his stomach, and to remove his right testicle. Of losing one of his ‘crown jewels’, he says: ‘There isn’t a choice. Do you want to live or die I just wanted to get on with it.’
At this point he jumps up, pulls up his T-shirt and proudly displays a long red scar running vertically down the middle of his stomach. ‘It’s 14in long,’ he says. ‘I have another in my groin about 5in long where they went in to remove my testicle. I wasn’t worried about losing a ball – I’ve still got one. I was given the option of having a prosthetic one but I decided not to. I asked the surgeon, ‘‘Would you have one or not’’ He told me most men end up having it taken out at a later date. I don’t mind having one. My girlfriend doesn’t care, and everything still works.’
Seeberan adds: ‘A prosthetic doesn’t react like a real testicle. It’s not connected to the nerves or blood supply. It may knock against the other one, which can cause pain, especially during sex.’
Before treatment began, Dean had some of his sperm frozen.
‘Most testicular cancer patients have surgery to remove one testicle only, and for them fertility isn’t affected,’ says Dr Simmonds. ‘However, there is a small risk that chemotherapy can cause problems so we recommend sperm-banking to these patients.’
Dean was out of hospital within ten days of his operation. Since then, monthly scans and blood tests have shown he is clear of cancer. He says: ‘I enjoy life, and going through this has made me want to enjoy it more. I’m very lucky. Sometimes I don’t think it’s properly sunk in.
‘There is a chance it could come back, but I never think about that. I feel 90 per cent better. Maybe I’ll never be completely back to normal; they say I will. I get pins and needles in my legs – that’s because of nerve damage from the drugs. I’m having testosterone injections, because I have low levels since my ball was taken out, and I have problems with my memory because of the treatment.’
Steve Noakes says: ‘I was with Dean all the way through his treatment and he didn’t once say, “Why me” It’s like the racing – every time he gets in a car, we all do the worrying for him.’
Noakes is obviously deeply fond of his young charge. ‘When my hair started to fall out from the chemo, Steve said I should shave my head and he did the same, because his was long,’ Dean chuckles. ‘It’s an improvement for him. Mine’s grown back now but it’s like baby hair.’
Later, Dean’s website designer asks me: ‘Did you find him a bit emotionless’ As a health writer I have spoken to a few people over the years who have faced bleak news. Some cry and rage. But so many more don’t – instead discovering an inner strength. ‘He did cry, once,’ the designer confides.
Dean’s fitness coach Ben Williams ran the cross-Saharan Marathon des Sables this year in aid of charity Wessex Cancer Trust, of which the young racing driver is now an ambassador.
To raise money, he made a video explaining how proud he is of Dean and how grateful he is that he survived. ‘That set Dean off,’ he says. ‘I think it was seeing how much he means to us.’
Dean admits: ‘I think everything that had built up in me just came out. But I wasn’t sad. It feels good to know people care for me.’