When my first husband was diagnosed with cancer, I entered a world I never knew. In order to fight alongside him, I had a lot to learn. I was a fish out of water. You never gasp at air as much as when you feel your loved one is sinking and you don’t know how to save him.

Toward the end of our fight, I wrote the doctor this letter …

Dear Dr. Hawkins,

Growing up, my family owned a fly-fishing camp on the Kennebago River in the Rangeley Lakes region of Maine. At daybreak, my siblings and I would throw on our fishing vests, lift our long, thin poles from the porch and walk the mile or so down the road where the fishing was best, below the second dam.

Fishing was just one of the many things I love about the river. To be sure, there are the strikes and rises and releases – not to mention keepers – of fishing. Yet as much as I love fishing, I’ve always taken it a little less seriously than my brother and sister. One sibling would find a spot upstream, the other downstream, giving me ample room in between.

I would cast my rod for a while, then take some time to play on the gray pebbles of the river, beside the rushing waters flowing out of the dam. Often I carried a small bucket and chased things: tadpoles the size of my palm skittering about, squirmy crawfish that clawed at me from under the river rocks and tiny minnows that gathered on the quieter waters of the shoreline. Other times, I would fill the bucket with the berries and wild roses that grew alongside the river.

I became pretty good at skipping stones across the water. My father showed me how it worked. I was fascinated with the way he “puddle jumped” rocks across the crest of the waves. I’d count each time the stone slap-tapped the surface, sometimes all the way to the middle of the river.

I learned that part of the art of skipping rocks is in finding the best stone. I’d look for an especially flat one that fit “just so” in my hand. I learned to think before I threw, how to eye the water, the magic of imagining the rock flying before I actually threw it. I learned how to bend a bit, how to flick my wrist … about the power of the arm. I put in hours and hours and hours of practice. And one day, I skipped a chip of granite all the way across the river to the other side.

Doctor, please forgive me for this inadequate analogy, but my memory of throwing the perfect stone is the only way I can begin to understand the way you fight cancer. For, I imagine, you must first choose the perfect tool. It must fit “just so” in your hand. Do you ponder things first, imagining how to destroy the tumor before you attack it? I wonder, do you bend a little, flick your wrist before you use the power of your arm?

However it is you operate, over time, you’ve learned to do what most can never do. You’ve learned how to consistently skip those stones all the way to the other side … And though I know skipping stones isn’t very much like killing cancer cells, I’m trying to say the only way I know how: Thank you for putting so much of who you are into what you do so that others get a chance at life.

… And I thought you might enjoy this story, for I imagine that, as a boy, you may have chosen a few stones of your own and skipped them across a river, counting each time the stone tapped a wave. If you did it once, I imagine you did it a thousand times, because you would want to improve your distance, for that is the type of person you are.

All this to say, whether the cancer returns or not, we want to thank you, for your efforts are still the same. We want to thank you for being just a stone’s throw away …