Sam Kelley of Scarborough with his wife Jeananne. When Sam received a cancer diagnosis in 2009, his first doctor told him to get his affairs in order and that he shouldn't treat it. Credit: Courtesy of Sam Kelley

In 2009, Sam Kelley saw his doctor for what he thought were minor problems — a sore throat, some acid reflux. Instead, he learned that he had Stage 4 cancer of the esophagus.

A cancer specialist advised him to get his affairs in order.

“His opinion was that it was all over,” Kelley, who lives in Scarborough, said. “He said, ‘if you were my father, I wouldn’t put you through the surgery or any chemo or radiation. We’re just going to give you palliative care, take care of you and make it easy, but there’s nothing that can be done. Nothing.’”

Kelley walked out of the office and went off to play a round of golf.

Then he called his longtime friend Jim Ward for some advice on getting a second opinion. Jim runs a company in Maine called Patient Advocates. It manages employee health insurance plans for businesses that are self-insured, meaning that instead of offering employees health benefits through a known insurance company, they craft their own plans.

After 40 years in the business, Ward has established good relationships with doctors, hospitals and medical groups all over New England. He wholeheartedly agreed that his friend needed a second opinion.

“Sam told me the doctor said to get his affairs in order and to do it quickly,” Ward said. “He could have been right, but why would you just accept that? It’s your life? Right?”

Ward made some calls and within a few days, Kelley was at Mass General Cancer Center in Boston. Instead of seeing just one cancer specialist, his case was reviewed by a team of specialists that included a medical oncologist, a radiation oncologist and a surgeon.

They offered him a clinical trial and above all, hope.

“They weren’t saying we can fix this,” Kelley said. “They said we have a possible solution. So, there was no certainty to it at all, but at least it was another opinion.”

He decided to go for it. Make no mistake, his treatment was hellish. But it worked.

“First,” he said, “I had chemo and about six or eight weeks later, they did surgery. I was in the hospital down there for, I think, 11 or 12 days. It was a big, big operation. They removed a lot of the bad part of the esophagus, and a lot of my stomach. And then I did a lot more chemo after that.”

It was a rough experience, and it took months for him to recover. About a year after his surgery, Kelley and his wife Jeananne threw a big party to celebrate his recovery and to say thank you to their friends and family.

“We had a lot of support from a lot of people,” he said. “Lots of cards and calls and visits. I wanted to thank everybody in person. So, we had a Victory Over Cancer party down at the Landing at Pine Point. We had a band and food and drinks and there were about 150 to 200 people.”

Sam Kelley of Scarborough held a Victory Over Cancer party with family and friends after successful treatment for Stage 4 cancer of the esophagus When Sam received a cancer diagnosis in 2009, his first doctor told him to get his affairs in order and that he shouldn’t treat it. Credit: Courtesy of Sam Kelley

In 2014, Kelley reached the five-year mark and was declared cancer-free. The gratitude he feels is so immense that for the past 10 years (until COVID hit), he’s been a cancer buddy at the Dempsey Center in South Portland.

He has also become a huge advocate of getting second and even third opinions. Many people won’t, he said, because they’re afraid they’ll offend their doctor, and yet, the doctors he has asked have told him, of course, you should get another opinion — they would.

Kelley credits Ward with helping to save his life and since the experience, Ward says his company now works with employers to add what he considers an important provision to their health insurance plans.

“A provision that we now have in almost every medical plan we administer is a mandatory second opinion for cancer,” Ward said. “You have to go to a cancer treatment center and get a second opinion.”

Twelve years have passed since Kelley received his devastating diagnosis.

When I interviewed him for this piece in early December, I ended by asking how he was feeling. His response: “Wonderful! I’m 76, I feel very good, I play a lot of golf. And the really wonderful thing is because they removed a lot of my stomach, I can eat only a tiny amount of food. As a result, I lost about 50 to 60 pounds, which I needed to do.”

And with that, Sam said goodbye and headed out for a game of (indoor) golf.

Diane Atwood, Health contributor

Diane Atwood has been sharing stories about health and wellness for more than 30 years, first as a reporter on WCSH6 and then as the marketing and public relations manager for Northern Light Mercy Hospital....