QUINCY -- The Giekers have always been the couple that everyone strives to be.
Happy and healthy, Dan and Darlene Gieker are lifelong friends -- they grew up one block apart in Camp Point -- who are always quick to help out those in need. Dan works in construction, and Darlene worked in the restaurant industry before becoming a homemaker. They've been married for 34 years, and their little family consists of a daughter and a grandson.
A year ago, the Giekers seemed to have the perfect life. Today, they're both battling cancer at the same time.
"We've been healthy all of our lives," Dan said. "We never even had a doctor."
Dan is down 50 pounds from last March, and Darlene has been steadily losing weight, too. Both have always been fit, but now their faces are gaunt, and movement is slow and painful. A 20-year-old photograph of the couple at a wedding is on display beneath the TV in their living room -- a symbol of just how drastic the physical changes have been.
Dan's chest is scarred from surgeries and a feeding tube, and Darlene's feet swell when she stands on them for any length of time.
"We're pushing ourselves to live as normally as possible," Darlene said. "We have our grandson's 18th birthday this weekend. That will be fun, but by the time that day is over, we'll both be rundown."
Last March, Dan began experiencing acid reflux-like symptoms. After a couple weeks, his symptoms had progressed to the point that he couldn't keep any food or water down. The first 20 pounds seemed to fall right off of his 195-pound frame.
They called their daughter's doctor -- with whom they developed a strong rapport while their daughter battled her own health issues for many years -- and got in to see him right away. Dan had an endoscopy, and when he awoke from the procedure, the doctor's face gave away the severity of his situation.
"I knew he thought I was a goner," Dan said. "I made a decision in that moment that I want to live."
Dan had large tumors in his esophagus and in his stomach. Little time was wasted in sending him into a surgery that Darlene was told most people don't survive.
‘Support keeps us motivated'
Just over a year ago, Darlene started having regular stomach aches -- two or three a week. They progressed to several times each week, but when Dan was diagnosed, she put her own condition on the backburner.
On the way home from her husband's surgery, Darlene was rushed to the Emergency Room, her kidneys barely functioning. Doctors have told her that her issues, which stem from a large mass in her pelvic region, are almost certainly cancer-related. She will soon have a biopsy to determine what kind of cancer she has.
"It's hard because I can't take care of him, and he can't take care of me," Darlene said. "As long as he makes it, that's all that matters to me. He's the pillar of the family."
Dan dismissed that statement.
Early in the process, he was told he had a 50 percent chance of surviving. He takes some comfort in the fact that the cancer Darlene faces will likely have a much higher survival rate.
"It is something you have to talk about," he said, "but we don't have time to dwell on the negatives."?Their lives have become a constant barrage of daily doctors appointments and follow-ups. When they recently had two days in a row without any appointments, the couple rejoiced.
Drainage complications after Dan's surgery kept him in the hospital for a full month, but he does appear to be on the mend.
"Right now I'm just thinking about getting back to work," Dan said. "My job said my position will be available whenever I can get back. I'm thinking maybe in a month or two."
Their daughter, Melissa Davis, has been caring for them. After Dan's diagnosis, the couple experienced an outpouring of support from friends and family members who cover everything from chores like mowing the yard and preparing meals to financial assistance. When she last checked, Darlene said, medical bills were in the hundreds of thousands and are continuing to climb.
"Their support keeps us motivated," Dan said. "It keeps us going."
Loved ones have coordinated a benefit for the couple on Nov. 18 at the South Side Boat Club, 640 S. Front St. There will be food and drinks, a silent auction and a 50/50 drawing. A live DJ will perform 1 to 5 p.m., and the live auction will begin at 5 p.m. For more information on the benefit or to make a donation, call Donna Lewis, 217-506-0521; Anita Vaughn, 217-577-5719; Diane Meyers, 314-724-5773; or Missy Davis, 217-779-8441.