By Jordan Ballard-Kriegh, Ally Author
Adapt. Improvise. Overcome.
To a Navy sailor, these words are everything. It’s a mantra to get them through training, a reminder during their tours of duty, and a strategy for facing adversity – both at home and overseas. These are things Dan Shockley knows all too well.
“Drydocks are used for ship construction and maintenance, and I spent a lot of time over 22 years in drydock,” Dan explained. “After I retired to Sacramento, I started playing vintage baseball and they encouraged us to pick our own nicknames. We used 1863 rules, the era during Lincoln’s presidency. I served aboard the U.S.S. Lincoln, and we drydocked in the Persian Gulf in 1996. It made sense, and they called me Drydock.”
Drydock’s 22 years of military service on seven different ships, facing many different and difficult situations, are what prepared him for his cancer diagnosis in May 2012 and his subsequent surgeries.
Phase 1: Adapt
Drydock and Dr. Ronald Galliano, colorectal surgeon at Tripler Army Medical Center, discussing a pathology report after successful colon surgery.
When Drydock turned 50, he knew it was time to schedule his first colonoscopy (guidelines now state that all people should start screening at age 45). It was something he knew needed to be done, even though there was no family history of colon cancer, so he made the appointment. What was meant to be a routine colonoscopy quickly became something much more dangerous.
His doctor found 100 polyps in the inner walls of his colon and rectum, all which had a 100% chance of developing colon cancer – a severe, unfortunate symptom of the hereditary colon cancer syndrome he was diagnosed with. The fancy name for this rare disorder is Attenuated Familial Adenomatous Polyposis, also known as AFAP, and impacts less than .03% of the population.
“When they said I would need major surgery, I went into battle mode,” Drydock said. “Two weeks after my first colonoscopy, they had me scheduled for a surgery to remove my colon, rectum, and anus – and it was a good thing they did. During my surgery, they actually found and removed a tumor that was stage zero colon cancer.”
Drydock’s skilled medical team removed the mass and the polyps, leaving him with a permanent ileostomy.
“I’m blessed enough that I can go about my business as if nothing happened,” he said. “I enjoy my life, give back and share my journey, and you’d never know about my ileostomy by just looking at me.”
Phase 2: Improvise
Drydock with Dr. Henry T. Lynch.
Research was an important part of Drydock’s decision process regarding his surgery and recovery afterward. However, AFAP is a complicated condition and the information surrounding it is limited. Most of the research available was pioneered by Dr. Henry Lynch, who discovered this rare disorder and began his study of AFAP in 1984.
Few people have the chance to meet the doctor who discovered their condition but Drydock was lucky enough to already have a connection to Dr. Lynch. Both his genetic counselor and colorectal surgeon were colleagues of Dr. Lynch. Seven months after Drydock’s diagnosis and surgery, he met the pioneering doctor on February 20, 2013.
“We set up a private lunch to discuss my case, and it was so much more than just a medical discussion,” Drydock said. “Dr. Lynch was a former Navy man, so we were able to talk about our Navy days and swap stories between talking about my condition.”
That private lunch was the beginning of a friendship left unfinished following Lynch’s passing in 2019, and one Drydock still treasures to this day.
Research wasn’t the only way Drydock filled his time. In addition to the United Ostomy Association of America, American Cancer Society, and Relay for Life, Drydock started his advocacy journey with the Colorectal Cancer Alliance in June 2012. His connections to these organizations opened the doors to the advocacy work Drydock does today.
Phase 3: Overcome
On behalf of the Colorectal Cancer Alliance, Drydock secured a National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month proclamation in Hawai'i with Governor David Ige.
The nature of Drydock’s hereditary cancer syndrome means that it can manifest in other organs – and it requires regular endoscopic procedures done at Palo Alto VA Hospital. It was after one of these procedures that Drydock’s doctor, Dr. Friedland, recommended a surgery to resection the pancreas, redo the bile ducts, and remove the gallbladder. This delicate surgery is only performed in a handful of medical centers and required a 20-day hospital stay in 2021.
These setbacks haven’t stopped Drydock from always forging ahead with a purpose as a colon cancer warrior.
“I think things happen for a reason and there are a lot of things I can’t control. My positive attitude is something I can control,” Dan said. “Worrying didn’t cause this gene mutation and worrying isn’t going to make it go away.”
His mission is to educate the world about colorectal cancer to save lives, de-stigmatize ostomies, and continue Dr. Lynch’s work – so he’s turned his focus to Congress. Drydock’s ongoing advocacy project is to get the last full week of March designated as Hereditary Colon Cancer Awareness Week through a congressional resolution. This is his way of giving back to the community and paying it forward.
Understanding the importance of a colonoscopy and early detection saved Drydock’s life. Because he did what needed to be done when he turned 50, like he’d done for many years before in the Navy, his doctors found and removed the polyps before Drydock displayed any symptoms. That might not have been the case if Drydock put off his colonoscopy.
That’s why it’s so important to Drydock that others know their risk and get screened when their doctors recommend it.
“The sooner you catch it, the sooner you can work with your doctors to cure it. Not everyone is so lucky, and it’s important you take the opportunities you have when you have them to keep yourself healthy,” Drydock said.
The most important thing you can do is start the conversation. Early detection saves lives and starting the discussion with people you love can be the wake-up many need to make that first appointment. Colorectal cancer is highly treatable and easily preventable when it's caught early.
When it comes to screening, tomorrow can’t wait. If you or someone you love is due for a screening, take our short quiz to learn more about the options available based on your personal risk factors.
Jordan Ballard-Kriegh is the daughter of a CRC angel who passed his baton in 2016. When she's not helping allies share their stories, she's working on her next book. You can follow her on Twitter at @jcballard98.
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