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On the day her husband dies of ALS, a young mother learns she has cancer

by Meghan Holohan / / Source: TODAY

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When John Sylvester woke on June 16, he knew it was his last day. The 44-year-old had been battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) for more than five years and he could tell he reached the end of his fight. He told his wife, Tessie Sylvester, and she held his hand during his final hours.

“He told me he felt like that was it. That day was the day,” Tessie told TODAY.

John and Tessie Sylvester met when they both coached youth soccer. They were married in 2004.
John and Tessie Sylvester met when they both coached youth soccer. They were married in 2004. Courtesy Tessie Sylvester

While the two always understood that ALS would shorten John’s life, he found solace in knowing that Tessie would raise their two sons, Gus, 6, and Freddy, 5.

“One of the things that gave him comfort was that knowing that the boys would be OK with me,” she told TODAY.

Earlier in June, Tessie had visited her doctor for a routine check-up and the doctor ran blood tests. To the 36-year-old’s surprise, the blood tests came back abnormal, prompting more tests, including an ultrasound, a CT scan, and a biopsy. The doctor suspected Tessie had cancer and she told John.

“I would lay with him and cry about it. He was so sad,” she said.

John Sylvester knew that ALS would shorten his life but felt comforted knowing his wife, Tessie, would care for their children.
John Sylvester knew that ALS would shorten his life but felt comforted knowing his wife, Tessie, would care for their children. Courtesy Tessie Sylvester

They were waiting for the results when John passed away. As Tessie was on the phone with the funeral home, her other line beeped. It was the doctor’s office — the doctor told her that she had adenocarcinoma, a cancer found mostly on mucus-secreting glands, which had metastasized to her liver and lymph nodes.

“Part of me literally must have been in shock,” she said. “I tried to kind of swallow what I had been given."

John and Tessie met when the two coached youth soccer in 2002 in Minneapolis, where Tessie still lives. After exchanging numbers, they began dating. In 2004, they married. John, who played professional soccer, worked as a coach while Tessie became a dentist. About five years ago, John started losing ability in his right hand and he visited a neurologist.

John Sylvester remained active for his sons even though he had ALS.
John Sylvester remained active for his sons even though he had ALS.Courtesy Tessie Sylvester

After some tests, John had the diagnosis: ALS. Despite losing use of both his arms and eventually his legs, he kept pushing himself to be an active father.

“It was always about the boys,” Tessie said. “We knew that the kids weren’t going to grow up in a sad ... household.”

John could talk well enough for his family to understand him and he enjoyed watching his sons play soccer.

“He always said he wasn’t going to be that parent on the sideline, yelling,” Tessie said. "But he was."

Since his passing, Gus and Freddy sometimes ask if "they will be able to see daddy again."

Creating memories for his sons remained important to John Sylvester, who knew that ALS would shorten his life.
Creating memories for his sons remained important to John Sylvester, who knew that ALS would shorten his life.Courtesy Tessie Sylvester

They have been coping as well as can be expected, but she hasn't told them about the cancer, yet.

“I know they will worry,” she said. “I just want to see how the treatment goes.”

The doctors remained unsure where the cancer started. While she already started chemotherapy, she doesn’t know if she also will need surgery or radiation later.

Grappling with the loss of her husband and a cancer diagnosis hasn’t been easy, but Tessie remains strong for her children.

“I am just trying to focus on one day at a time and sometimes one hour at a time. I do feel like John is still with us in some way. I feel like that is part of the reason I haven’t fallen apart,” she said.

She said this experience has taught her not to take anything for granted.

"You are just never promised anything. John and I tried to … enjoy every day. We always were together with the boys. That is what made us happy," Tessie said.

She pays for her own health insurance and cannot work during treatment. Friends set up a GoFundMe to help and people can donate here.

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