After Shigeo Tsuruoka was diagnosed with stomach cancer, his family came together
to help him. His daughter, Aki Smith, was by his side as he navigated treatment and recovery.
Now she offers guidance to other stomach cancer patients and caregivers.
BY KATE YANDELL
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAWN BOWERY
At age 71, Shigeo Tsuruoka had never gone to a doctor’s office for a routine physical examination. But when he started having black stools in November
2013, he decided to seek medical attention.
Tsuruoka, who lives in Lomita, California, in the
Los Angeles area, was anxious because his brother
in Japan had died after being diagnosed with
stomach cancer. Tsuruoka went to a local emergency room and was admitted to the hospital; he
was relieved when the next day he was discharged
with a diagnosis of diverticulosis, a benign condition in which pouches form in the colon wall.
In a phone call just before Thanksgiving, a
gastroenterologist confirmed the benign diagnosis
with Tsuruoka’s daughter, Aki Smith, then 32. She
scheduled a follow-up primary care appointment for
her dad. On the phone after the appointment, Smith
recalls, her father “sounded weird.” She asked how
his appointment went and he replied, “Not good.”
She asked why. “I have cancer,” he said.
Smith raced out of her apartment, picked up
her father and drove to the gastroenterologist’s
office. In a private room, Smith says, the doctor
confirmed that Tsuruoka had gastric adenocarci-
noma, the most common type of stomach cancer.
“I [was] very, very shocked,” Tsuruoka says.
It wasn’t until nearly four years later, in 2017,
that Tsuruoka went to another doctor’s appointment without his daughter by his side.
Assembling a Dream Team
Tsuruoka was born in Tokyo in 1942, during World
War II. One of seven children, he spent his late
teens and his 20s working for Nikon repairing
cameras in Japan, the U.S. and Europe. At 30, he
went to college in Japan to study photography in
hopes of becoming a professional photographer,
but it turned out to be a “tough business,” he says.
He returned to repairing cameras and moved
to Paris to work. There, he met his future wife,
Anna Mianowska, who had moved to France from
Poland some years earlier.
Shigeo and Anna married in 1980 and moved
that same year to Gardena, California, in the
Los Angeles area, where Tsuruoka’s company