Ben Tolkan, a popular figure in DC’s beer industry who was the subject of a Washingtonian feature story, died late Saturday night after a five-and-a half-year battle with cancer. He was 37.
I met Ben in 2016 at Sibley Memorial Hospital, where we were both being treated for a rare form of cancer known as Ewing’s sarcoma. Ben became a source of fascination to me because of the upbeat manner in which he handled the tough, yearlong course of chemotherapy that we were both undergoing. I wrote about him in a 2016 story titled, “I Was All Set to Become the Most Popular Guy in the Cancer Ward. Then I Met My Nemesis: Ben.”
As I wrote in the story, “the same chemicals that had turned me into the hospital’s resident grump had made him an oncology-floor legend, the most popular guy in the cancer center, the only patient whose vitality seemed to increase with each round of chemo.
As I moped in the corner, a group of nurses huddled around Ben’s chair, their laughter reverberating throughout the room. Next, Ben pulled an older gentleman aside to offer encouragement. ‘You’re wife’s going to be feeling a whole lot better,” Ben told the man, “once she gets that blood transfusion.’”
Ben arrived in Washington in 2005, after graduating from the University of Wisconsin. Realizing a desk job wasn’t for him, he became a bartender at Pizzeria Paradiso, in Georgetown, and then began working in the beer industry, most recently as a sales representative for DC Brau.
In February of 2015, he was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, stage four. Despite the awful prognosis, Ben continued to move forward with his life. “When I think of these five and a half years [that he was being treated for cancer], they are defined by the best times I’ve ever had with my brother in my whole life,” says Jessy Tolkan, Ben’s sister. “By him being an awesome uncle figure to many of his friends’ children. By him rooting on his favorite sports teams and traveling to see championship games.”
After finishing his course of treatment at Sibley Hospital in 2015, Ben met, and eventually married, an Arlington County public school teacher, Abby James. “We definitely continued to live out life the best we could, with the luck not always on our side,” James says. “Some people could look at the glass half empty, but we still tried to always look at it, you know, as the glass is half full. And we also continued to try to fill that cup. And while we might not have been they type that discussed five years, five months from now, we certainly tried to enjoy each day. Little things. Like going to get a cup of coffee, or going for a walk.”
At the same time, Ben never relented in his effort to overcome the disease, traveling to Boston and New York for various treatments. “Genuinely, in the depths of his being, he believed in his ability to fight,” Jessy Tolkan says. “He gained real confidence in his ability to endure those treatments. And was totally willing to say, ‘OK, Bring on what’s next. I know I can handle it.’ And it will suck for a couple of days, but then we’ll go out to a cool restaurant. Then we’ll go on the next trip. I’ll buy tickets for the next concert.”
This past Saturday, at a Washington area hospital, Ben’s body finally gave out. “Abby and I were each holding one of his hands,” Jessy Tolkan says. “And we were thanking him for being the best thing that ever happened in our lives. And we were assuring him as best we could that we would try to be OK without him. Ben fought so hard, and he didn’t fight just for himself, it was just so clear that he was hanging on for Abby. And he was hanging on for me and my parents. And we kind of let him know that it was OK. And that he didn’t need to suffer anymore.”