A cancer diagnosis later in life didn’t stop this athlete from competing

Update: It is with sadness we share that Samuel Lawrence passed away in February 2022 shortly after we published his story. Samuel inspired us with his determination to compete and achieve his goals despite undergoing cancer treatment. We hope that by sharing his story of resilience he will inspire others like he did us, and we offer our sincere condolences to his family.

At age 78, Samuel Lawrence’s athletic ability continued to dominate his life, even after a diagnosis he didn’t see coming.

In October 2018, a regular check-up with his family physician discovered Samuel’s red blood cell count was very low. The news came as a surprise to him and his family. “I didn’t have any physical signs of being sick. I was feeling OK in my day to day life,” says Samuel.

Referred to The Ottawa Hospital for a bone biopsy to try to pinpoint the cause of the low hemoglobin levels, Samuel was shocked by the results. He was diagnosed with a myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS, and learned this is what happens when a person’s bone marrow does not produce enough functioning blood cells. 

Treatment began soon after. Samuel continued to visit our hospital’s Medical Day Care Unit (MDCU) every six weeks for treatment that includes two injections. “The regular injections took a toll on me. It took me about a week to recover from each treatment and to get my energy back. The drug was to help maintain my counts, but it’s not a cure.”

In the summer of 2021, his hemoglobin levels dropped again, and his doctors were trying to determine why. Samuel learned his condition is complicated and unpredictable.

Samuel credits the caring team for helping him through each session. “The Ottawa Hospital has been the best. The MDCU is incredible. The nurses who took care of me every six weeks — they were my guardian angels. They were wonderful people and they treated me very well.”

That exceptional care helped Samuel achieve a significant goal in the summer of 2021 when he competed in javelin and high jump at the Ontario Master Championships in Toronto. Samuel recalled sheepishly asking his hematologist, Dr. Grace Christou, if it would be ok to participate. “She bounced out of her chair and became an instant cheerleader, and she told me to go for it!”

He trained through the summer months at the Terry Fox Athletic Facility and competed in mid-August 2021. His doctors altered his treatment in order for him to be able to compete. Samuel medaled in both his javelin and high jump competitions.

Today, the injections have stopped — they became too much for Samuel and he made the decision to end treatment. While his condition continues to decline, he is comfortable and in good spirits. He and his family are grateful for the care he received. “I couldn’t t ask for any better group to treat me and I’m also blessed to be in Canada receiving this care.” He’s also grateful to those hidden heroes — those who generously donate blood on a regular basis to help patients like him.

The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research, and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa.