Shane Evans, just 42 years old, is in critical care in hospital and will spend months recovering from the keyhole surgery to remove his oesophageal cancer on Monday.
Upsettingly for his large family, they won't be able to visit him until he feels better, and he still struggles to breathe and will be fed via a tube for some time.
The Newport man was diagnosed in January having had trouble eating and keeping down food, and following six-week courses of chemotherapy and radiotherapy he was admitted to Royal Stoke University Hospital for the procedure.
Things began changing around the turn of the new year, said Shane's mother Linda.
"He was having trouble swallowing food," she said. "He was down at my house one day and he kept sicking his food up.
"It got to the point where I said he had to call the doctor. He went to them and his doctor booked him straight in at Shrewsbury hospital."
Shane, a full-time firefighter at MoD Donnington and a part-timer at Newport fire station, had multiple endoscopies before he was diagnosed and went through chemotherapy and radiotherapy at the same time to shrink the tumour before this week's surgery.
Linda added: "He's just had a 10-hour operation, he came out of that about quarter to 8pm [on Monday].
"He's in critical care at the moment, he's just covered in tubes. They removed his lymph nodes as well.
"The surgeons said the surgery went well but we're all a bit stressed out at the moment."
Shane's partner. Lisa Stovin. and four children won't be able to visit in the early stages of his recovery, but Linda did speak to him briefly after the surgery.
"It's really upsetting seeing him, he's got that many tubes and wires coming out of him," said Linda.
"He was very nervous. What upset us all was we couldn't go so far with him, we had to say our goodbyes at the ward entrance.
"We're not allowed to visit him while he's in critical care – his children can't go and see him."
A fundraising event was held for Shane and his family at Newport's Navy club, raising about £400.
Television crews filmed the operation because of its complexity and the rarity of such a cancer in a man of Shane's age, and it will feature in a Channel 5 programme in the future.