Jun 19, 2020 11:00 AM

“Being a grandfather is the best thing,” Doug Engle says. “It’s much better than being a parent,” he laughs.

If you’d asked him more than a decade ago, Doug never would have guessed he’d make it into his fifties, preparing to welcome his seventh grandchild into the world. In 2006, he was diagnosed with an extremely rare, extremely deadly type of cancer: desmoplastic melanoma, a skin cancer that “doesn’t play fair” because it lacks pigment and is difficult to diagnose.

In fact, Doug estimates that before his cancer diagnosis, he had eight or nine procedures to remove a recurring lump between his collarbones. Each time, results came back benign. No cancer detected. Eventually one test showed cancer, but his doctor suspected a false positive. The doctor still referred him to the University of Utah for a CT scan. The scan revealed a tumor and the results came back as cancer.

doug engle and jon huntsman sr
On a visit to the cancer hospital, Jon and Karen Huntsman had the opportunity to meet Doug Engle and his parents when Doug was an inpatient.

“It felt like I got kicked in the stomach,” Doug says. “I was just scared when I heard the word ‘cancer.’” He soon began treatment at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI). “When I asked the doctor what my prognosis was, he said I had six months to a year to live. He told me I had a survival rate of five to seven percent. I was devastated.”

Even after handfuls of surgery, Doug still faced a long road. The cancer had spread to his lungs, gallbladder, and liver. He soon underwent another surgery. Chemotherapy followed, as did radiation. The cancer retreated.

Yet the persistent tumor just below his neck returned. Doug learned about an experimental treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center, which he and his family decided to pursue. His father-in-law accompanied him to Texas for this new treatment. And the treatment worked.

After so many recurrences, it was hard for Doug to believe his cancer cells could be gone for good.

“I always thought, ‘My cancer is going to come back,’” Doug remembers. “That was always nagging at me—don’t make any plans. Then came six months, then came a year. I started feeling optimistic—hopeful, you might say.”

His one-year tests brought clear scans, clean bloodwork, and relief. “I started picking up life and making plans,” Doug says.

Plans like gardening—Doug loves growing a salsa garden with serrano, Anaheim, and jalapeño peppers—and music.

doug engle with bagpipes
Doug fulfilled a lifelong dream of learning to play the bagpipes

“When I was a kid, I’d always wanted to learn bagpipes,” Doug says. During treatment, his daughter expressed interest in learning to play. Doug found her a local band instructor for lessons. “All along, I wished I could do it. After a year in the clear, I said, ‘Why not?’”

Doug, who has Scottish heritage, has been playing ever since. He now plays competitively in the Utah pipe band, kilt and all.

As grateful as he is to have escaped such narrow odds, Doug acknowledges some challenges come with survivorship. Though he’s now in a successful career at AT&T, he’d sold the business he built with his father—a hard decision under any circumstances—because he thought he was going to die. He says there are days, too, when he asks himself a question familiar to so many cancer patients: why me? On this side of the disease, however, the question takes on a different meaning: why did I survive when so many family members have not?

“On my mother’s side, the majority of men all died in their thirties and forties,” he explains. “They all died of a strange illness. There’s a story about one great-grandfather who shaved something off his face and died six months later. My uncle passed away from a mysterious cancer. We now think it was probably desmoplastic melanoma.”

Desmoplastic melanoma is hereditary. And with what we know today, future generations of his family are in a better position.

Doug recalls his children struggling in their adolescent years. Not only did they fear losing their dad, but they worried they themselves would have the disease. “It was tough for them,” Doug says, “but the reality with this cancer is that there’s a fifty percent chance of passing it down to my kids. That knowledge is empowering, though, because now they know have a better chance of catching it early.”

melanoma skin cancer patient stories

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