When everyone is asked for their ages, groans escape the ladies at the table. They've settle in to a meal at the in Stamford. Most avoid the question by turning to their food.
From among them, Joe Toma declares: "I'm 64 and proud of it. Every birthday I have means I'm still above ground."
Joe ordered a cheeseburger. The plate placed before him looks delicious. He's also got two glasses of water, and he'll need them while he's eating. Joe's wife, Fran Toma explains after having his neck lymph nodes removed and undergoing radiation treatments, he has no saliva ducts.
"But I'm here," Joe said. "I'm talking to you. It's beautiful."
He smiles almost constantly while talking. And as excited as he and his wife Fran get talking about various points in their lives together, they both speak softly and deliberately. Joe, a thin-but-healthy 150 pounds now, used to weigh in at around 215.
In 1997, Toma was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
"I had no clue what chemo was," he said. "I had no clue about anything."
Joe ended up under the care of Dr. Steve Lo at 's Bennett Cancer Center, which is this year.
"Back in the day—and I'm 64, so this might be going back a ways—the Big C meant the end of the line," Joe said. "You'd think, 'Well, I hope they can make the guy comfortable.' Not now. It's not a death sentence anymore."
Joe beat cancer with the help of the Bennett Cancer Center.
"I had radiation and chemo," Joe said. "They had a clinical trial and I went for it and did it. I beat it in record time, or so they tell me. And as scared as I was, [Bennett] really took me under their wing. They made it easier than I was expecting."
While Joe was there getting treatment, he and Fran became aware of the hosted by the Bennett Cancer Center each year. Fran had to pick him up from the hospital where he was undergoing treatment, and Joe had to sign himself out and promise he'd come back, but they made it to the walk more than 15 years ago.
In the years following Joe beating Lymphoma, the couple continued to participate in the annual walk and would remain close with the doctors and nurses under who's care Joe recovered.
In 2003, he would return to them at the Bennett Cancer Center, diagnosed with head and neck cancer. This is when his lymph nodes would be removed and he would lose his ability to generate saliva.
"My wife was my guardian angel," Joe said. "And that's important to the story."
Joe's recovery from his second round would also be under the watch of Lo again, and again, Joe would try and keep an upbeat spirit.
"I'm the kind of guy who was working 15 hours-a-day, every day of the week," Joe said. "But this hit me and it turned me into a couch potato. I really lost my motivation sometimes, but the cancer center had people there who would get you up and get you going. And I always had my guardian angel."
Annette Shanley, Fran's sister from Florida, disagrees with Joe's assessment of his own abilities.
"No one had a more positive attitude going through it," Annette said. "He was always up, joking around. It just kept everyone going."
In 2011, one day after Fran retired, she would go to the doctors and have a mammogram done. They would discover she had breast cancer.
"Now the shoe was on the other foot," Fran said. "I also went to see Dr. Lo. You never know. Cancer touches everyone. Thank god it happened here. [The Center] really does care."
During her recovered, Fran had trouble keeping her own spirits up. Everyone deals with illness in his or her own way. When Fran got down, Joe stepped up his game.
"It was my turn to be her guardian angel," he said. "And it wasn't just me. Annette must now own part of Hallmark, she sent so many cards to Fran."
"She was sending up to three a week," Fran said, smiling.
"We are thick as theives," said Annette. "It was devastating to me to watch Joe, to Watch Fran go through it. But these people at the center, they make you feel special. I was in awe of it all. I get chills just talking about them, about the walk, the effort."
Fran underwent her treatments. Two weeks ago, she underwent her last one. Wednesday, May 30, she had her stitches removed.
This Sunday, June 3, 2012, Joe and Fran and Annette and the 50 other people on Toma Team will lace up their sneakers for the 16th year and take to Columbus Park for the Hope in Motion Walk, Run or Ride once again.
"It's overwhelming," Fran said. "You see your doctors and nurses and other patients and what looks like a million young people and you see a sea of colored shirts, all the same color. They pick a [new] color every year. And you know the cancer statistics and just to see this kind of support, this energy—it's inspiring. It gets bigger every year. It's contagious."
Of the 50 people on Toma Team, his sons Michael, 44, of Bridgeport, and Charlie, 37, Charlie's wife Melissa and their children Memphis, 3, and Jackson, 7 months, will be joining them. Joe lights up talking about them.
"Jackson will be running with [Melissa] in a stroller," he said. "But Memphis will be walking with Mamma and Papa Joe. And they'll be bringing their little dog Elvis, who gets his own shirt!"
Joe also thanks his nephew, Nick Bellantoni, who comes every year and brings brought in $1,200 last year alone in sponsors.
"Every year he tries to beat his own goal," Fran said.
"[The walk] gives you this kick," he said. "Cancer alone teaches you to respect life more, to put aside the unimportant things in life. But to see all these people show up and you know they've realized the same things you've realized about life—it's beautiful."
Joe uses that word a lot in conversation. And maybe, when you stare down cancer twice, everything becomes a bit more conspicuously beautiful.
"I want to have an impact on people's lives," Joe said. "I'm not done yet."
The Stamford Hospital's Bennett Cancer Center Hope in Motion Walk, Run or Ride runs on the following schedule:
- Registration begins at 7:00 a.m. at Columbus Park in Stamford.
- 7:30, Bike ride begins
- 9:15, Welcome and Stage Presentations
- 9:30, Run begins
- 10:30, Walk begins
- 12 p.m., Closing ceremonies.
Free parking is available for participants. To make a donation to the Bennett Cancer Center, see www.hope-in-motion.org. So far this year (as of 12:35 a.m. Thursday morning) The event has raised $663,604 of its $1 million goal. Last year, the event had 2,562 walkers, 727 runners and 162 riders — including 355 children.