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William Lobdell | Photo: John Gilhooley | March 31, 2014
Jack Shimko battles cancer the best way he knows how—by taking his fight to the water.
When Jack Shimko was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2009, doctors banned the Newport Beach waterman from “going in” the ocean because his low white blood cell count made him susceptible to infection. “I took their advice and adjusted the definition of ‘in’ the ocean,” he says. “Paddleboarding was ‘on top’ of the ocean.”
So began Shimko’s ongoing journey across the surface of the Pacific to help heal himself, and now others, of cancer. Since then, he’s blazed a watery trail-to the World Championship Paddleboard race in San Francisco (and he was just 16 weeks into his chemotherapy treatment); to Point Conception, where he paddled 260 miles off the California coast to all eight of the Channel Islands to raise awareness and funds for research; and to the land of nonprofits, where he launched Newport’s We Are Ocean to introduce survivors to the sea’s restorative power.
This year, through the organization, the 33-year-old plans to provide sea-oriented experiences to more than 200 cancer patients and survivors (mostly in the 18- to 39-year-old age demographic), including a weeklong summer camp on Catalina Island. “Our camp is designed to let cancer patients and survivors share and heal together while out in the elements,” says Shimko, who has been cancer-free since his treatment ended in 2010. “We’re trying to form an ocean-based post-cancer community. Our camp is an integral step in that reality.” We Are Ocean also offers many one-day events in the area that range from surfing to paddling outrigger canoes to yoga on the beach. “It’s not just the ocean, it’s also adventure,” adds Shimko, the father of 1-year-old Marley. “Adventure heals the mind, body and spirit.”
The only things that Shimko isn’t enthusiastic about are the ominous dark shapes that glide under his paddleboard in the open ocean. “Shadows freak me out!” he says. “In my experience, they are either cancerous tumors in my body [that show up on an X-ray] or very large sharks.”