For Douglas Engle, attitude plays a big part in coping with a stage IV cancer diagnosis. "Despite the 5-7% survival rate and all the doom and gloom, I would think, 'That isn't going to be me today.' I would lie in bed, think of my cancer, and send my mind to attack it," he says with a laugh. "It was a way of surviving the reality of the situation."
Doug was 37 years old when he was diagnosed with a rare kind of skin cancer called desmoplastic malignant melanoma (DMM)—the same melanoma that claimed the lives of his great-grandfather and several uncles and great uncles. "DMM is one that doesn't play fair," he explains. "It has no pigment and shows no signs of typical melanoma." Melanomas often are asymmetrical, have jagged or notched borders, are extra dark or varied in color, and are usually larger than the size of a pencil eraser.
Doug's journey with cancer began with what he believed to be an ingrown hair on his sternum. When it wouldn't go away, he went to a doctor who discovered a tumor the size of an almond. The mass was removed and tested benign, or noncancerous.
This tumor came back four times that year, progressively getting larger and more aggressive. Each time it was cut out and tested, the results were benign. Doug's doctors believed the masses were desmoid tumors—noncancerous, slow-growing masses that don't spread to other organs.
|Jon Huntsman Sr. visited during one
of Doug's hospital stays in 2006.
At the time, Doug's wife, Priscilla, was being treated for ulcers by a doctor who also specialized in upper abdominal and pancreatic bile duct cancers. At one appointment, she asked her doctor if he would mind looking at her husband's chest. "The doctor looked at me and immediately his eyes got wide," says Doug. "He said, 'I'm calling cardio thoracic surgery and getting you in.'" Doug had an appointment with a physician at an area hospital in a matter of days.
Doug was misdiagnosed two more times before CT scans revealed a mass in his lungs. After the mass was extracted, it became clear what was causing the tumors all along—DMM that had spread to the lungs. (All of Doug's relatives with this cancer died in their 30s and 40s because the disease was never accurately diagnosed.) "They told me, 'Full-court press—you go after this like you've never done anything before,'" says Doug.
When Doug's doctors told him his cancer was stage IV, he was stunned. "First I thought, 'I'm a dead man.' Then I said, 'What do we need to do? What's the next step? Let's get this going because time is not on my side.'" A week later, Doug started a rigorous chemotherapy regimen at Huntsman Cancer Institute.
Doug's cancer came back twice after that—first in his chest tissue and then in his other lung.
During the two years he battled cancer, Doug had four months of chemo, six weeks of radiation therapy, two lung surgeries, and four tumor extractions. He's also had all of his skin tissue from nipple line to neck and from shoulder to shoulder removed twice. His final surgery was performed at MD Anderson in Texas, where he participated in a clinical trial.
Beating the odds for his cancer type and stage, Doug has been cancer-free since December 2007. Today, he enjoys racquetball, playing the Scottish bagpipes, and being involved in the lives of his five children. "Knowledge is now the empowerment for my kids. They know they have a 50% chance of getting DMM and if they ever need to they can say, 'This is what my dad had. Make sure you test for it.'"
"I can't say my outlook on life has really changed," Doug says about being a cancer survivor. "But, it is more sensitive and real. I look at my kids and appreciate the time I have with them."
Learn more about melanoma in our cancer types and topics, or visit the Melanoma and Cutaneous Oncology Program webpages.