Sunday, December 21, 2014

Living wake becomes surprise wedding

About a week ago Liza Heaton, 25, received the prognosis — the young woman from Shreveport had less than one month to live.

A rare cancer that affects young people, synovial sarcoma, had returned to her body after three years of remission. The disease was back and more aggressive than ever, and a gastrointestinal obstruction would prevent treatment.

Oncologists at Johns Hopkins cancer center recommended hospice and palliative care.

When Heaton's family in Shreveport shared the news of Liza's prognosis, more than 100 friends and family members from around the country flocked to her side to spend last hours together.

Rather than play host to her own living wake, Heaton turned a final gathering into a large-scale celebration — her wedding.

Liza and her new husband, Wyatt Heaton, had talked briefly about getting married after they learned the cancer had returned on Thanksgiving Day.

It wasn't until last week that doctors explained how little time Liza had left.

"When they said it would not be months, but weeks, I took that to mean a wedding was off the table," Liza said. "Wyatt took it to mean, OK, we have to get married this weekend."

The two decided to get married last Thursday, and they were married Saturday at Liza's aunt and uncle's house on Cross Lake.

The surprise ceremony was disguised as a lakeside fish fry, a chance for everyone to get together in one place to spend time with Liza.

"We had 150 people. Tons came in from out of town — from all areas of my life," she said. "From summer camps, college, friends from Atlanta, Baltimore. It was amazing. That's how I wanted to spend my time."

The couple said spirits were high at their wedding despite the circumstances.

"I wanted that day to be about the wedding, not about cancer. We still thought at the time it may be my last week, so I wanted it to be about the wedding and about love," Liza said.

The wedding was a success, Wyatt said. Liza was strong despite going from about 30 minutes a day out of bed to "eight hours of straight partying."

"I kept thinking, she needs to be on her fluids, but her dad said, 'No. She's having the time of her life,'" Wyatt said.

The day after the wedding, the obstruction that prevented Liza's treatment cleared. Oncologists prescribed a chemotherapy pill to halt the progression of the tumors.

"The hope is that the pill will stop the tumors, and in the spring she can join a trial and treat the cancer," said Liza's mother, Michelle Haynie. "The chemo pill could even shrink it."

Liza said she wants it to be known she no longer is in hospice care, and her treatment is not considered palliative.

She is fighting.

Her father, Dr. Richard Haynie, said the trial Liza will participate in is with a new drug that is working well on other tumors.

This week stands in stark contrast to last week in the Haynie household, where Liza and Wyatt are waiting out the illness surrounded by family.

"Last week we were thinking hospice. Only a few weeks left. Then with this chemo pill we weren't given a time frame. We're hopeful to beat it again and go into remission and spend the rest of our lives together," Liza said.

A seeming second chance inspired the Haynie family to start a GoFundMe campaign online to raise money for the Johns Hopkins-hosted "Love for Liza Fund" to further research for the rare disease.

The family did not expect the overwhelming response.

In about 24 hours, the fund had received close to $200,000. Friday, contributions were more than $280,000 of the $500,000 goal.

Liza said she is overwhelmed both by the money and the support of family and friends who have donated, sent gifts, cards and paintings.

"Someone got Lance Armstrong to call me last night. It was unbelievable. It's humbling to know so many love you and care about you and are willing to stand up for you," she said. "And now looking at the donations, there are people I don't even know."

Liza hopes her story, which the generally private young woman reluctantly tells in order to raise money for the disease's research, inspires others with negative prognoses to stay strong and to hold onto hope.

"Maybe it will turn around, and if it doesn't, enjoy what you have. Enjoy the time you have left," she said. "

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