Elite athlete Jason Wynyard's agonising wait for cancer diagnosis and treatment

A few months ago Jason Wynyard - one of Aotearoa's most successful sportsmen - had yet another world championship in his sights.

But the 49-year-old elite axeman is instead facing a much more dangerous opponent: a rare and aggressive stage four cancer that's attacking his lymphatic system.

And the shock of his diagnosis has been compounded by the lengthy and frustrating delays for treatment he's faced since he first had symptoms.

Wynyard has spoken to The Hui to warn others to listen to their bodies and to fight to be heard by health professionals.

"It's really important that my story is told, because it's a big one. The health system in New Zealand is very, very broken," he said.

Te Whatu Ora has apologised to him for their experience leading up to his diagnosis.

In March Wynyard came second at the national woodchopping champs - competing against men twenty years his junior. His aim for the year was to win his 10th world title at the world woodchopping championships in Stuttgart, Germany in October.

Jason Wynyard chopping wood.
Jason Wynyard chopping wood. Photo credit: Photosport

But in early April came the first inkling that the nine-time world champion's goal would be derailed.

His partner Sharon Kennerley remembers the pain he began experiencing.

"It was in his stomach but he was also having back spasms. It would present itself on one side and then within minutes it would be on another side." 

Wynyard's breathing also felt restricted.

Wynyard saw a GP who told him he'd just a strained muscle but Wynyard knew it was more serious. Days later still in pain he went back, asking for a scan and a referral to a specialist. Once again the GP was adamant it was just a sprain.

Not happy with that diagnosis, Wynyard contacted a friend who was a specialist and got a scan that revealed a mass. He was advised to go straight to Middlemore Hospital, in south Auckland.

At Middlemore, Wynyard was told the mass was a haematoma - essentially a bad bruise, and sent home.

Kennerley recalls asking the hospital doctor for an MRI scan. 

"And he actually said that they cost a lot more money and it's just a haematoma which will absorb into the body. And so Wynyard trusted that."

But she worried the pain Wynyard was experiencing was similar to that of her mother who'd had stomach cancer.

"I kept saying to every doctor that came in, 'Are you sure it's not cancer?'"

She feels her fears were dismissed by the medical team.

In the two weeks that followed Wynyard was crippled by pain and unable to work.

After almost four decades at the top of his game, competing in a highly physical sport, Wynyard knew his body well. The tough athlete with a high tolerance for pain was in agony.

"He was just in so much pain. He was curled up in pain and I could see the swelling around his stomach. So there was more going on than just that," Kennerley said.

Jason Wynyard.
Jason Wynyard. Photo credit: The Hui

He went back to Middlemore Hospital, but was again told it was a simple haematoma. Twenty-four hours later, still in agony, he returned and the staff agreed to further tests.

Shortly afterwards in a packed four-bed ward with loud music blaring from an adjoining cubicle, doctors delivered the devastating news. Kennerley and Wynyard feel the way the diagnosis was delivered lacked the essential privacy or compassion they deserved.

"He just goes, 'Oh It's not a hematoma, it's a lymphoma'. And I'm just like... 'Is that cancer?' And then he said, 'yes',' Kennerley said.

"There was no respect and dignity, no confidentiality."

Wynyard has Burkitt lymphoma - a rare, fast-growing cancer of the lymphatic system. In Aotearoa Burkitt lymphoma is so rare there are only six reported cases a year. 

The whole experience has shattered Wynyard's faith in medical experts.

"Words can't express how disappointed I am in the system," he said.

"The way they've handled the whole procedure from the start. It's like you can't be any more wrong about something.

"This whole journey seems like a cost-cutting exercise for the hospitals."

The MRI scan showed the mass that was wrongly diagnosed as a haematoma had more than doubled in size in the weeks since it was first discovered.

"So in a matter of a couple of weeks from seven [centimetres] to 18, and then he had tumour lysis through his body. It's affected every single organ in this man's body. And now we find out it's in his central nervous system," Kennerley said.

And she worries that Wynyard is starting his fight against cancer on the back foot because of the delays.

"In that timeframe, he [has become] emaciated. He's lost so much weight. His organs are affected. He'd gone through torture."

Wynyard agrees: "Yeah, don't know what's happened to the medical system. It just seems to be really broken."

Jason Wynyard in hospital.
Jason Wynyard in hospital. Photo credit: The Hui

He has now started chemotherapy at Auckland Hospital which will be his home for the foreseeable future. 

He is drawing on the competitive spirit that's won him numerous world titles to defeat his illness, grateful for the outpouring of love and support he's received, including the understanding of their employers Broadtech Group and Stihl NZ.

"We're gonna beat this. It's like Wynyard and I set up for another event that he's just going to smash and that's all we're focused on - coming out the other end of this and creating an amazing comeback story," Kennerley said.

Cancer specialist Dr Maxine Ronald told The Hui presenter Julian Wilcox that Wynyard's experience was not an isolated one.

"There's barriers to accessing care and once Māori are in the system there's barriers to moving through the system at the same rate as non-Māori do."

She said many Maori experience racism within the health system - institutional and interpersonal.

"And we know that racism kills."

Dr Ronald said systems within the health service were racist because they were set up to prioritise non-Māori. She gave the example of bowel cancer screening which was originally set up to screen only people aged 60 and over, when most Māori who get bowel cancer will have it in their fifties.

She said the Māori Health Authority Te Aka Whai Ora was the best opportunity to improve health outcomes for Māori for a long time.

Kennerley has formally complained to Middlemore Hospital about Wynyard's treatment.

A Te Whatu Ora spokesperson says it has apologised to the whanau for their experience leading up to Wynyard's diagnosis - and especially the way the diagnosis was communicated.

Te Whatu Ora acknowledges there is significant room for improvement - particularly more training for junior doctors on the appropriate ways to communicate life-changing news.

It is committed to making changes so that no other patient has to go through the same experience.

Te Whatu Ora added that Wynyard's case was clinically very complex and its team worked diligently to make a diagnosis.


  • 3 April 2023 - Wynyard visits GP with stomach pain and spasms, told it was a sprained muscle / rib sprain 
  • 5 April 2023 - Revisit to GP as spasms more severe and only getting one or two hours sleep a night. Pushed for referral to specialist to get scan
  • 5 April 2023 - Contacted specialist friend for a scan which showed mass and sent to Middlemore Hospital for further investigation
  • 6 April - 9 April 2023 - Middlemore Hospital admission which diagnosed mass as a haematoma
  • 8 May 2023 - Diagnosed Burkitt Lymphoma
  • 9 May 2023 - Whānau meeting with Middlemore Hospital
  • 10 May 2023 - Admitted to Auckland Hospital and starts pre-chemotherapy
  • 16 May 2023 - Wynyard starts aggressive chemo 

Made with support from New Zealand On Air and Te Māngai Pāho.