My younger brother Brett was originally diagnosed with testicular cancer when he was 23, in June of 2009. Supposedly it is not a bad cancer to get, but unfortunately it had already spread to his abdomen, liver, lungs and neck by the time it was diagnosed.
He has gone through multiple surgeries, many rounds of chemo and radiation, and two bone marrow transplants, but it is such an aggressive cancer that they cannot stop it from spreading, and it is now huge in his lungs and brain.
He was told in June 2010 he would have just a year left, and now, because of the size of his brain tumors and rate of growth, the doctors estimate he has just two months left. But last Friday, he married the girl of his dreams. This is their story.
Brett and his future bride, Laura, met in college and began dating in 2009. He was studying to be a doctor, and she is studying to be a nurse. He was diagnosed several weeks into their relationship, and the news was obviously devastating. Although he was told initially that testicular patients have a high survival rate, Brett was diagnosed with Stage III cancer, as it had already spread to his abdomen, liver, lungs and neck.
The diagnosis left him confused and scared, but also determined to do everything possible to beat it. The initial news brought him and Laura closer, but Brett also worried about what this information would mean for their young relationship. He did not want to cause her pain. He decided it would be best if they took things slow and not too seriously, while he focused on his treatments and recovery.
Laura didn't agree with the decision to "take things slow." She already knew she cared deeply for Brett. She stayed by his side through chemo, attending the hospital with games, snacks and a hand to hold through all the fatigue and side effects. She was there each time he awoke from various surgeries. She helped organize fund-raisers for his medical treatments and even held a musical fund-raiser in her hometown of St. Louis on her own to help his cause.
During this time, the insurance company was denying Brett's claims for care. In fact, his insurance has been virtually nonexistent the last year and a half. Despite his having coverage, the insurance company has found every reason to deny his claims, and have yet to pay for his treatments, which have totaled almost a million dollars. The debt has been mounting, and we have struggled as a family to keep Brett in school (his lifeline) and stocked with the medications he's needed to continue his fight.
Even though he has been treated by generous and supportive doctors, the hospital stays, surgeries, and pharmaceuticals all had to be covered. We made extensive fund-raising efforts and sought pro-bono care from physicians to continue his treatment. During winter of 2010, Laura and the Fafard family organized a 5-kilometer run called "The Fafard 5K," to raise awareness and funds for Brett's treatment. Laura states that the day of the 5K race was one of the best days of her life, as she saw the fruits of her efforts come to life, with thousands of runners flocking to the event in support of her love.
By early June of 2010, despite all the surgeries and rounds of chemo, Brett was declared "terminal" by the doctors. He was running out of treatment options. This news was especially devastating as throughout his year-long battle he had clung to multiple options of attack on the insidious disease. Brett turned to his best friend and constant support, Laura, with the news. They cried together at the thought of him lasting only a year and debated what to do with his remaining time.
Meeting the reality of his terminal illness brought the couple even closer together, and Laura was an unending source of comfort and support. They decided that together they would face his destiny and make every effort to live out each minute of his remaining time to the fullest. They became inseparable.
Throughout the last five months, Brett and Laura discussed marriage. Brett knew that he wanted to propose, but worried that he was being "selfish" in asking Laura to enter what would end inevitably in grief. All along, Laura wanted to marry Brett and tried to convince him of her unconditional support and deepest desire to be his wife through the end.
Approximately three weeks ago, Brett's condition worsened. He went in for additional tests which showed an aggressive tumor in his brain. He was given only a few months to live. Again he turned to Laura as they decided what to do. Although his life expectancy was drastically shorter than they anticipated, they decided nothing changed; they would still live each second to the fullest and enjoy the time they had left.
Later that night, Brett collapsed with a grand mal seizure. As Laura dialed 911 and waited for the ambulance, she agonized over whether he was dead or alive and instantly regretted that they had not married. When he awoke in the hospital, Brett had no idea how he got there or where he was. Even in his state of haze and confusion, he held Laura's hand as she cried, mumbling, "Don't cry babe. I'm still here." It was a turning point for their future. As he healed from the seizure, it became clear that part of living every day to the fullest included becoming one as man and wife. Shortly after, Brett proposed. Laura, of course, said, "YES!"
Brett is extremely tenacious, driven and disciplined. Throughout his life, he has overcome adversity with a positive attitude and a strong will to succeed. He was extremely athletic. At the time of his diagnosis he had just 6 percent body fat and was an avid biker, runner and all-around athlete. He has given extensively of himself, serving a two-year humanitarian mission in impoverished areas of Brazil, and volunteering throughout college at a summer camp for children of cancer patients. (Ironic! And completely unrelated to his illness -- he did it long before his diagnosis.)
Even now, from his hospital bed, he works tirelessly to raise funds for the camp and make sure that the attendees have the resources they need to deal with their grief. He has such a positive attitude and regards his life with gratitude and accomplishment. He says he has "accomplished every major goal" he's ever had, and marrying Laura is "icing on the cake." He accepts his future not with disappointment, despair, or self-pity. Instead he says, "Why not me?" He has had a lot of enjoyment and accomplishment in his life and doesn't feel he needs to achieve anything else to bring complete joy and happiness to his time here.
Although I don't know Laura as well, I knew from the minute I met her that she was a perfect match for my brother. Not only does she fit in perfectly with our large, close family, she won our hearts with her unconditional support and love even in the worst of times. I got the chance to know her better when meeting her family for the first time at the wedding. In her dad's toast, he recounted a story from when Laura was a toddler. Knocking at the closed bathroom door for her mother who was occupied on the other side, Laura attempted to run and crash into the door several times, shouting, "I'm gonna knock it down!" This is pretty much how she views life.
She has stayed so positive throughout Brett's ordeal, not in a state of denial or unrealistic hope, but with appreciation and ambition to live each second to its fullest potential. She is full of life, energy and laughter. She is the perfect match for Brett as they face this challenge together. Above all, instead of feeling sorry for herself, or accepting Brett's pardon to move on with her life with someone who will be a long-term mate, Laura has pushed through persistently, bringing joy to Brett's life in their time together.
When Brett proposed, they decided right away to have a small intimate ceremony on the beach in San Diego. It held a special place in their relationship, as it was here that Brett showed Laura the ocean for the first time. They didn't care for an elaborate to-do, but relished a small, intimate affair with immediate family gathered on the sand at sunset as they exchanged vows. They assumed we'd all go for a small dinner afterward, knowing it was unrealistic to expect, or plan, for anything grander.
Upon hearing the news, my sister and I sprang into action. There had to be some way to include a few luxuries for Brett and Laura's special day. We began by reaching out to all our contacts through Facebook to request help. First we explained the situation and asked for any resources available to help throw Brett and Laura at least a reception with a wedding cake.
We received an immediate and overwhelming response! Friends re-posted our status requests and soon, friends of friends, and then complete strangers began offering services. I received an introduction to Jerry Beck, a local DJ who recommended using a wedding coordinator. Within 20 minutes of our conversation, I received a call from San Diego wedding planner Amy Vargas who immediately offered to help. Amy immediately went to work, and from the 10 original generous donors, she brought the total to a whopping 25 local vendors willing to help create a fairy-tale wedding.
Amy was a constant support, integral to the big plan, as I had to be in New Orleans on a business trip for the four days leading up to the wedding. This meant my planning time was cut from nine days to just five, a major stress for me. Not only was I trying to pull off the impossible, but trying to do it from 2,000 miles away. I was hosting about 20 family members at home while I wasn't even there! At the same time, it was instant gratification to see everything coming together so magically. All the family pulled together to make this a reality.
In the hectic days leading up to the wedding, Brett and Laura were with me in New Orleans. Back when we'd found out he was terminal in June of this year, I asked him if he would accompany me so we could spend some much-needed time together. He agreed. When the diagnosis got worse, I invited Laura to come along also -- not knowing that the trip dates would be the four days leading up to their impromptu nuptials. We had a great time sightseeing. I'll never forget Brett and Laura dancing on a dinner cruise along the Mississippi on an old paddle boat. They danced like they didn't have a care in the world!
Meanwhile, friends and family were arriving in San Diego from all over the country. It took all of the bride's family savings to fly in last-minute from St. Louis. People took time off work and made long drives from Northern California, Idaho, and Seattle. At one point, we wondered whether we'd all have to sleep on people's couches; we even joked about piling eight people into the gorgeous bridal suite that La Valencia had kindly donated. But it all worked out amazingly, with the Embassy Suites La Jolla stepping in with rooms one day before the event.
The wedding was beautiful! The weather was perfect, with the sunset a gorgeous hue of burnt orange, lavender and pinks. The blue water glistened as the last of the sun's rays bounced from its surface. The words spoken were of love, commitment, loyalty and perseverance. There were tears shed and laughs, too. Brett and Laura danced the night away. The beach motif appeared everywhere, from sea shells to white flowers, to sand and light candles. The toasts were testaments to the couple's strength, as well as expressions of love, admiration and celebration.
To be clear, Brett and Laura never asked for nor expected a fairy-tale wedding. They would have been happy with a small ceremony with meaningful words and exchange of love among family. In Brett's words, "I don't even consider this a dream wedding, because I could have never dreamed it would be this nice. I refer to it as a fairy tale made possible by the kindness of strangers."
The joy on Brett and Laura's faces will live in my heart forever. In the last year and a half, there have been many defeats and too much sadness, but in this short week, I saw my brother experience pure happiness and joy. He and Laura couldn't take their eyes off each other; the love between them was palpable. And that -- not the sadness -- is what I'll remember of Brett's last days.
The story was told to Lena Katz by Dominique Molina.
From the author: We are most grateful to all the vendors who gave so selflessly to assist these total strangers. It is important to all of us to publicly thank these generous people for their efforts and let them know they have made a difference in our lives.
Brett and Laura are back home in Provo, Utah, where he is undergoing treatment. He called today to say that they discovered yet another brain tumor, and it is expected that he will be extremely ill and unable to do much starting within the next three weeks.
They continue to do fund-raising for Kamp Kesem, Brett's camp for kids whose parents have cancer. Even from his hospital bed, and wedding, he was soliciting donations for an upcoming silent auction they are putting together. He'd like to generate as much interest as possible for the camp to try and help as many kids as possible and leave a legacy before he passes away.