In remission, he rides hard, with gratitude

Posted 10/2/19

Every day is a gift for David Engle, who knows from scary recent days that the rising of the sun each morning could be the last dawn he sees.

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In remission, he rides hard, with gratitude


Every day is a gift for David Engle, who knows from scary recent days that the rising of the sun each morning could be the last dawn he sees.

“I think the mental part is 90% of the challenge of surviving and figuring out the way to live with the ambiguity of not knowing what is going on in your body,” Engle said while tinkering on a vintage bicycle in his shop. “You are hopeful, but you don’t know.”

The key is to keep going, said Engle, of Port Townsend, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in December. He underwent a double mastectomy on Jan. 31 to remove a Stage 1 invasive tumor in his left breast and a Stage 0 invasive tumor in his right breast.

“One thing I have noticed in my attitude is everyday I live in the day differently than I used to,” Engle said. “I used to think, ‘I am in the day, but there is tomorrow.’ Now I am in the day, and I don’t need tomorrow to be OK.”

In the past, Engle had been busy making plans for the future and setting those plans in motion. He retired as Port Townsend’s Superintendent of Schools in 2016. Before that, he worked with school systems around the world and in the private sector with the Educational Testing Service while living in New Jersey, he said. He also was principal at Interlake High School in Bellevue and Ballard High School in Seattle.

He has remained active in the community, and is a founding member of the Port Townsend Cycle School and a past president of the Rotary Club of Port Townsend.

“I have always been calendar-driven,” Engle said. “I don’t do those horizons anymore. I do what is meaningful today and what should be done and what will be good for the community if I do it. I am not ignoring the future. I hope I have one, but if I don’t, I have today. And that is pretty awesome.”

In remission

Engle’s cancer currently appears to be in remission.

“I have had a couple of trips to Seattle for wellness checks. I told my oncologist, ‘I want to be your most boring patient.’ I come in with that attitude and so far, so good. No signs of recurrence.”

The oncologist is pushing for a cure, Engle said.

“You never know with cancer. You just have to wait and do all the right things.”

Instead of chemotherapy, Engle opted to take a regimen of Tamoxifen.

“If you get really clear margins in surgery, if they get most of the cancer cells out, then they give you Tamoxifen to go after what is called the free cells,” he said. “The Tamoxifen I am going to take for probably five years. It creates a hostile chemical environment.”

Tamoxifen is used to treat men and both premenopausal and postmenopausal women, to reduce the risk of early-stage, hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer coming back after surgery and other treatments, according to Tamoxifen is usually taken for five to ten years.

Although not as severe as chemotherapy, the drug does have side effects.

“It is a drug that has some impact,” Engle said. “It has disrupted my sleep patterns a little bit. I am a real light sleeper now and I wake up easily. I have just figured out how to manage that. I am doing OK.”

Many nights, Engle wakes up at about 3 a.m., he said.

“I just don’t fight it. I read for about an hour and then I get tired again and go back to bed. It is a weird little break.”

Overall, Engle said he feels pretty good, all things considered.

“What is different from when I didn’t have cancer until now, I am more intentional about every day having some social interaction where I go meet with people. I have created a support group. It is not like I am coming to meet you because I have cancer, but it puts something in my day where I have to get revved up and get myself going because what I’ve found is it is harder to get started for me. I have remedied that by always having an appointment.”

Engle remains actively involved in the community, he said.

“Right in the midst of the cancer episode I was president of the local Rotary, but that helped me get back on my feet and keep working on stuff. The community piece has been neat. I have been involved with the YMCA in building this concept for a full-service community aquatics center in Port Townsend. That has helped keep me involved in a longer scenario than day-to-day without me having to worry about tomorrow. I am in this project and we are doing it the best we can.”

Engle subscribes to the philosophy of President Theodore Roosevelt, who once said, “Get action. Do things; be sane; don’t fritter away your time; create, act, take a place wherever you are and be somebody; get action.”

“That is exactly what I am doing,” Englel said.

Over the summer, Engle built a road in the woods surrounding his home and erected a garden complete with an 8-foot deer fence.

“I punched this little road down here and I said, ‘I will be damned if I am not going to do this project,’” he said. “I knocked out a few trees, which wasn’t the smartest thing I did because when you knock trees down you have to clear them out. It was a little over-zealous.”

Still, the project gave him a goal.

“Around here you have to have an 8-foot deer-proof fence if you are going to raise anything the deer want to eat, too. I dug these holes. This was all fir trees in here. I cleared them out because it gets good sunlight here. None of this was here before.”

Engle planted a small garden, which is faring well.

“I got beans and potatoes and stuff going,” he said. “It really helped me keep going by coming down here every day in the summer and pitching in on this project. I did all this solo. There were times I used the tractor as my work buddy and I drilled the holes with a post hole digger. This soil is super rocky.”

Engle has been pulling fresh produce out of the garden all summer, he said.

“It has been reaffirming. Life goes on. This project really kept me disciplined because every day I was like, ‘It is still not done. The deer can get in there.’”

Facing the afterlife

Spiritually, Engle has been considering the possibility of life after death, he said.

“I am a person that has struggled with the issue of,’God? No God?’ I believe there is a spiritual dimension. There is a creator. There is a beginning and an end. I don’t worry about immortality. It is kind of irrelevant. If there is a God, there is mortality. That is where I am right now.”

The passage from death to immortality is a struggle for humans, Engle said.

“We are here now and it is hard to let go of it. I haven’t been able to let go of it.”

Recently, Engle’s mother, Helen, 93, of Tacoma, gave her son one last life lesson — how to die with dignity.

“She passed away months after I completed surgery,” he said. “I know she was worried about that. I watched that process and how she encountered it and moved through it, and it gave me a lot of hope and made me feel like death comes and it will come sooner or later. You can navigate it just fine. She had her family around her and it is the same family I will have.”

That example was truly a gift, Engle said.

“She did me a favor then. It helped ground me a little bit in terms of, ‘Well I am going to survive but this is a moment I am going to face at some point. Nobody gets out of here alive, as far as I can tell.”

Staying active

Engle stays active physically, repairing the damage done to his body. He does this by chopping wood and going for long bicycle rides.

“It is a rebuilding activity. What I found when I first started riding was my upper body was so damaged that I would have to come back because my shoulders and neck were getting sore. Now I am OK. I can go out and rip a 20-mile ride just fine.”

The rides themselves are a different experience than before the breast cancer diagnosis, Engle said.

“It used to be bicycling, I am out for the bike ride. It was second nature to me. Now I am more aware of being alive and it feels good to be here. It is more of a high level experience than it used to be.”

For now, Engle is maintaining a holding pattern.

“I am conscious of everyday exercise, everyday social engagement,” he said. “I watch my diet. I have my little routines I maintain. I am probably living the most healthy lifestyle I have ever lived.”

Engle said he remains hopeful his next appointment in Seattle, coming soon, will go well.

“I am going to maintain my boring status with her. I schedule my meetings with her at the end of the day so I can close out her day with a little hope. I figure she has a pretty tough job.”