BIG READ: Meet the boy who beat cancer against all the odds
IT took every ounce of his boundless optimism, relentless positivity and lust for life for 11-year-old Sam Carroll to defeat the monster in his head.
In May of 2014, doctors discovered an extremely rare and deadly cancer growing beneath the little Grafton lad's shock of sandy hair.
Known as an angiosarcoma, the growth was wrapping its invasive tendrils around the honeycomb structure of Sam's temporal bone near his ear.
Like something from a B-grade horror film, the cancer knitted its vile tendrils around the vital structures that allow the youngster to hear, and vital nerves that control facial movements.
"He had what we thought was an ear infection," recalls Sam's mum Angela, a journalist with Australian Regional Media.
"He had some discharge coming from his ear."
Thirty-six-year-old Angela and Sam's dad Adam, a 37-year-old communications specialist, put the strange infection down to the results of their sports-mad son's swimming routine.
"I just thought he had swimmer's ear or that type of thing," Angela said.
"He wasn't in any discomfort - so I thought it would sort itself out.
"We took him to the doctor and he was put on antibiotics."
A few weeks later, the discharge still flowing, the family took their little boy to another doctor who suggested there was a foreign body in the ear.
A trip to an ear, nose and throat specialist saw the child on another course of antibiotics that again failed to clear up the infection.
Soon a scan unearthed a strange lump in Sam's head, so the Year Six student was rushed to Sydney for a biopsy.
"On the Monday we thought he had an ear infection and by the Friday we were told he had cancer," Angela says.
"It was such a whirlwind.
"We had no idea what type of cancer - we were told it was a tumor, that it was malignant, it was aggressive."
Further tests revealed Sam had a cancer so rare that there have only been a handful of documented childhood cases in the world.
"First of all we made a decision to not tell Sam at that point," Angela says.
"We did not have enough information to give him.
"We waited to hear exactly what was ahead of us - what his journey was going to look like.
"We wanted to be guided by the doctors on how to best tell him."
True to their word, Angela and Adam kept the sad secret to themselves, giving no indication to Sam and his big brother Hugh or little sister Mae that their middle-born child had a ticking time bomb beneath his perfectly formed ear.
"Even at that point he thought it was a nasty ear infection," Angela says.
Like most of us, Sam's doting parents never thought someone so close to them could end up having the Big C.
"You just don't ever expect that it's going to be you - that it's going to be your child," Angela says of those first few hours after learning about her boy's condition.
"You get told it's cancer - you don't get told anything else.
"You walk away from that initial meeting with no idea of what that is going to mean.
"We didn't know if it was one of those cancers with a really high success rate - we just didn't know."
The Carrolls left Sydney and returned to their home in the picturesque Clarence Valley where they waited, smiling through the pain until they got the pathology results a few days later.
Determined to discover everything she could about the angiosarcoma, Angela did what most worried mums would - she looked to the internet to find answers.
"Don't ever Dr Google because it's the worst thing you could possibly do," she says with hindsight.
"You type something in (to the search engine) and you only ever get the doom and gloom."
The specialist told Angela and Adam they would need to return to Sydney as soon as possible.
"We got off the phone, had a little bit of a meltdown, pulled ourselves together, got a flight at midday and were in the doctor's office by three that afternoon," she says.
"The stuff that they were telling us wasn't great - they were saying they'd never seen this type of cancer before so they were puzzled about how they were going to treat it."
It's a tough enough pill to swallow for any adult, but Sam - at just nine years old - showed a remarkable level of resilience, simply accepting that his life of footy, swimming, school and mates was about to take a massive detour.
"I can't really remember," he says, thinking about the moment he learned about the cancer.
"It was a bit of a blur because everything happened very quickly.
"I didn't really know what was going on at the time.
"I was very confused.
"I was pretty scared once mum and dad told me."
Sam was admitted to Westmead Children's Hospital where his growing body was subjected to a gruelling regime of rigorous chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
"The first time I went to Westmead, it was daunting because there were kids with bandages on their heads - really bad stuff," he says.
"It was very daunting."
While the initial biopsy was a surgical procedure, Sam's specialists decided it was too dangerous to remove the tumor from his skull because of the way it wended around the delicate nerves and bone structure.
"It was a risk versus reward-type scenario." Angela says.
"The risk of damaging any of the nerves and all of that sort of stuff was too high so the doctors said it was not worthwhile.
The family spent 18 months between Sydney, Coffs Harbor and Grafton for Sam to receive the treatment they knew would ultimately save his life.
"In Australia we are truly blessed to have the healthcare system we have - my son would not be here today without it."
"It is easier to remain positive when you have the calibre of doctors and medical professionals we have here looking after your child."
As the treatment progressed, the toll on Sam's body - the one that had carried him through countless footy games, running races and swimming carnivals with ease - became onerous.
"It really took it out of him," Angela says.
"He'd be very sore and uncomfortable, his whole body would ache, he'd get nauseous and he'd start to get nose bleeds.
"He'd get temperature spikes and he'd have to stay in hospital and during that week in hospital he'd have heavy nose bleeds and be very sore - you couldn't touch him, you couldn't even run your fingers through his hair."
As his parents worried about things like how Sam would handle hair loss, the young bloke simply took everything in his stride.
"Family and friends were behind me, supporting me the whole way," Sam says of the reason why he stayed positive.
"Really, you've just got to find the silver lining in all of it.
"Instead of focusing on all of the bad things, you've got to focus on all of the positives."
And while this pre-teen lad accepts he's been through the wringer, he quickly pushes the rough stuff aside and turns to the hard times other young cancer patients endure.
"I did think 'why me?' a lot of times," Sam says.
"Sometimes I would almost cry thinking about 'why did I have to be chosen to have cancer?'.
"But in some ways it's a good thing because it's made me stronger.
"I saw some kids and they were in much worse situations - they were just having to stay in hospital non-stop, all of their bloods ?? were low and I was fortunate."
Angela says she's not surprised by her son's strength.
"He was upbeat and positive, so we were upbeat and positive and because we were upbeat and positive it was easier for him to be upbeat and positive," she says.
"We were very fortunate that he had the attitude he had going into all of this."
Sam's battle could have taken its toll on his siblings, but mum Angela says Mae and Hugh also came through with flying colours.
"Their struggle has been a silent one and they have carried this burden and uncertainty with their heads held high - never complaining, never angry, always seeing the big picture and always focusing on the positive.
"They have been a strength for Adam and I."
There have been plenty of distractions for Sam throughout his journey, including an appearance on TV to raise money for support organisations and running the ball out and singing the national anthem with the Wallabies before the Bledisloe Cup.
"Adam and I will be forever grateful for the support and generosity shown to Sam and our family," Angela says.
"Over the past two years we have seen first-hand the best of our community and the wider public.
"There have been countless acts of kindness, each one playing an important part in helping Sam get through the daily struggles that cancer presented."
Sam's dance with the devil is not quite over yet - there are years of regular tests and scans and the long-term impact of treatment are yet to present themselves.
But for now his strength and will to survive have pushed the cancer into remission.
He is back in school, he's playing the sports he loves and hanging out with his siblings and his mates.
He even took part in Grafton's recent Relay for Life where the local community came together to celebrate the strength of survivors, commemorate those lost to the disease and to raise money for the Cancer Council.
Sam says he is more than happy to give back after the groundswell of support he received over the past two years.
"It did surprise me that so many people were behind me," he says.
"I couldn't have made it through without all of the support from the Grafton community and everyone from outside of the community.
"But that's Grafton for you - they're always supporting people in need like my family was." - ARM NEWSDESK