Sam Doyle didn’t think he’d live long enough to get cancer, much less survive it.
The daily dangers he faced through his twenties forced him to reckon early on with the impermanence of life. A member of the National Guard since the age of 18, Sam was deployed to Iraq in 2007 and served on the ground there for just a week short of a year. He made it through countless dangerous trips across the country, through the eerie “perma-haze” of sunrise and sunset, guarding convoys transporting supplies from the “green zone” of Kuwait to every military base in Iraq. While Sam avoided major injury and survived the ever-present risk of death during this deployment, he would be left with a then-invisible threat to his life. The airborne contaminants resulting from the common practice of burning trash in Iraq — the same ones that caused the permanent haze at the bookends of each day — would be proven more than ten years later to be the cause of Sam’s colorectal cancer.
During the decade in between, as his cancer slowly and unknowingly developed, Sam continued to put himself in harm’s way in the service of others. He completed a second long deployment to Egypt in 2011, showed up one weekend a month and for two weeks each year for National Guard training, and worked full-time in his chosen profession of law enforcement for eight years.
Sam became a dad in 2014, and again in 2016, and over the next few years, his perspective on risk began to evolve. After struggling through a few years of working night shifts on his police beat, caring for his young children during the day while his now ex-wife worked, and getting by on just a couple hours of sleep each night, he finally decided to transfer his service to the homefront, gave his two-week notice, and became a stay-at-home parent. The addition of his children brought great depth to life, which provided Sam with much of the strength and determination needed to get through the trials cancer would bring, beginning with a long road to diagnosis in 2018.
Following a year of poor sleep (even worse than the usual interrupted slumber with two little ones!), bowel irregularities, and anemia — with no answers in sight after regular check-ins with his primary care physician — a colonoscopy was ordered. It yielded an immediate answer: a large tumor and what was then thought to be Stage III colorectal cancer. Sam started treatment the next month, and would endure rounds of radiation and chemotherapy and two surgeries before his medical team realized that his cancer had been miscategorized; it was actually Stage IV and also existed in his lung. Just as the COVID-19 lockdown began in March, 2020, Sam was admitted to Anne Arundel Medical Center yet again to have half of his right lung removed.
Through it all, he reluctantly began to accept help and support. Just a few months into treatment, Sam was stunned to learn that his marriage would be ending. His parents immediately set their life in Arizona aside and moved to Maryland for a year to help Sam and the kids. “They were my lifeline,” Sam remarked, reflecting on how his folks not only helped with logistics and child care but also with adjustment to life with cancer and a new family structure. Sam’s mom also encouraged him to find support from peers — something he had known was available after meeting Ulman’s Patient Navigator Megan Cannone at AAMC, but “being a typical guy,” didn’t think he needed.
After eight or nine months of his mother’s and Megan’s persistence, Sam started to attend support groups through Ulman and at the Wellness House of Annapolis. “It turned out to be one of the best choices I’ve made,” Sam reflects, “there hasn’t been a single person I’ve met who hasn’t been worth taking the time to get to know.” He jokes (though it’s true!) that he’s learned a lot about breast cancer, usually being the only guy at the group, and it sounds like he’s gained a deeper appreciation for listening and community, too.
Now that Sam’s treatment has ended (he just got his port out – hooray!), and as he settles into survivorship, he is looking forward to crafting a life which includes elements of his varied experiences.
Though his lung capacity is greatly reduced, he’ll be carefully starting up a weight lifting regimen again soon and is excited to regain the hobby and resulting fitness that cancer stole from him. Being in the gym will remind him of his days of deployment, as his comrades in both Iraq and Egypt taught him the basics of bodybuilding. He will be officially retiring from the National Guard on disability soon, able to do so because of the recently passed “Pact Act” which expanded the cancers known to be caused by the agents he was exposed to in the Middle East — now including colorectal among other cancers. And he’ll delve ever deeper into his important work as a father, able to provide the stability that both he and his little ones need after several tumultuous years.
At this point, Sam’s compromised breathing doesn’t allow for intense cardio exertion. “I can walk in a straight line on level ground as long as I want to,” he says. It sounds like that may be a great path to follow for his next phase.
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