The Survivors

My dad in the luminaria nightscape

My dad in the Relay for Life luminaria nightscape

Photo courtesy of Thomas A. Ekkens

“Tom, you have cancer.”


More silence.

Some words change your life forever. These four put a knot in my stomach that didn’t go away for years.

Leaving the horrific particulars hanging deathlike in the doctor’s office air, my husband and I hugged each other in the hospital hallway for a very long time. We didn’t want to let go because we knew that, as soon as we ended the moment, we would have to start this new journey.

We walked down the hallway, hand in hand, and didn’t say much. In our own heads, there were so many questions about so many things.

Once diagnosed, Tom turned inward. He saved his mental and physical strength for self-healing, not for entertaining visitors. I was just about the only person he allowed in our house during that time; most of our friends understood and complied. To this day, I am in awe of the strength of his character at a time when he seemingly had none to spare.

I am proud to say that I was a very good caregiver. I did what I had to do. I went to every doctor’s appointment and stayed by his side. I stroked his hair during numerous painful treatments. I kept my own fears hidden, staying calm and strong. I cooed positive and loving words in his ear. I forgave his bad moods. I loved him the best way I knew how. Most of all, I learned that I could handle much more than I ever imagined.


A few months later, at a Relay for Life fundraising event, my friend and I scanned the crowds.

“Where is he? Can you see him?” she asked.

“There he is — at the front of the line!”

Tom was holding the banner for the traditional walk around the track — the “Survivors’ Lap.” I barely recognized him, even though I saw him every day. His skin was very pale; he had lost most of his facial hair; his already-thin body was emaciated.

Our eyes met. Tom smiled and I lost it. Pushed-down tears burst forth and overwhelmed me. At that moment, and for the first time since his diagnosis, I didn’t know if he was going to make it.

He circled the track with the others, barely able to stand, let alone walk. This was a private club where no one wanted to be a member. We spectators cheered them on with lumps in our throats. Everyone wanted to be positive, but we all knew that cancer is a scary thing.

In the evening, Tom and I walked around the track and read the names on each luminaria bag, which represented loved ones lost to cancer. We lit one candle for my father and another for Tom’s Uncle Ed. This beautiful display brought a moment of peace and reflection to our weary minds.

Well, Tom is definitely one of the lucky ones! Now, eight years later, we still hug each other for a very long time every day. Even though we don’t want to let go — because it feels so good — we both know that we can get through anything. 



© 2010 Joanne Shwed

Originally written for CoastViews magazine

Received Honorable Mention in the Class 2 Senior Essay contest and was selected for inclusion in Carry the Light: Stories, Poems and Essays from the San Mateo County Fair (2012)

Featured on the Mary Stolfa Cancer Foundation website