From the dark into the light

Published 29 February 2012 12:50, Updated 01 March 2012 05:10

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On a glorious summer’s day in February 2010, Barry Du Bois was splashing through the surf, enjoying sun on his back, salt water and the sense of freedom of the sea.

Three months earlier his father had died and Du Bois was reflecting on memories of sailing the Mediterranean together. His father’s death had come as a terrible shock but the time they spent together ensured he had strong memories.

Barry Du Bois’s story should be known by every entrepreneur because his decision to turn away from a “work hard, play hard” approach to business to focus on his mental and physical health may have saved his life; twice over.

By his mid-40s, Du Bois had made millions in property development but found himself unfit, overweight, emotionally exhausted and totally unprepared to deal with the loss of his mother in 2005. “My mum had died after a long struggle with cancer and that had sent me into a very dark place,” he says. “It didn’t matter how much money I had, it didn’t matter how successful I was, I couldn’t save my mum and I couldn’t stop this woman that I loved so much from hurting.

“That shattered me.”

So in 2006, Du Bois walked away from the frenetic business pace, bought a yacht and took his family sailing. “I realised what was really important in life and decided to spend time with the family I had while we still could,” Du Bois says. “I got fit, lost about 45 kilos and basically went on an adventure.”

The sailing jaunt led to an independent film, which led to a role as a judge on Ten Network program The Renovators. Most importantly, he escaped the misery that followed his mother’s death and re-engaged with the world, finding a passion for life, fitness and family, which he believes carried him through his next challenge.

That summer’s day on the beach, a breaker crashed over him and he felt a strange jolt in his neck. The jolt was a vertebra in his neck disintegrating due to a plasmacytoma myeloma – a cancer of the immune system in which abnormal plasma cells penetrate the bone marrow.

The vertebra was lost. But Du Bois, more fit and emotionally resilient than at any other time, was prepared to take the diagnosis as a motivation to do still more with life. So he physically prepared to undergo three months of radiotherapy needed to slow the cancer’s growth.

A staff specialist in medical oncology with the Sydney Cancer Centre, Catriona McNeil, says people respond to a cancer diagnosis in vastly different ways. Pre-existing levels of health and fitness can play a role. “If you’re fit and well and exercising, you’re less likely to be hypertensive or obese and less likely to develop many cancers in the first place and less likely to suffer complications due to the treatment,” McNeil says.

“For some people, a cancer scare can even be a wake-up call as people use it as an opportunity to take stock, spend more time with family and smell the roses, although for others it is totally debilitating.”

For Du Bois it was a motivation to focus on things he believes will make the world a better place. He has become an ambassador and spokesman for the Cancer Council and is working on environmentally sustainable development projects.

His principal passion, however, is the Brahminy Foundation which uses wilderness camps to help heal young people who have experienced abuse and neglect. The group is working towards construction of a facility – a permanent home from which to offer services.

Du Bois’s plasmacytoma myeloma must be constantly monitored and may worsen in the future but this has only served to strengthen his resolve.

“So many people get lost in this quest for money and success, which is supposed to support their family, but if it takes them away from that family then they are on the wrong track,” he says. “If I hadn’t lost my mum and hadn’t gone through that dark time, I would never have been fit enough to cope with the cancer treatment, or emotionally able to deal with what was to come.”

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