“I didn’t think I was going to cry at her wedding, but the moment she walked through the doors, I sobbed like a baby,” Megan Olsson said about her friend Cassie (Smith) England.
“She was the most beautiful bride I’ve ever seen in my whole life.”
And that was after chemotherapy the day before.
Cassie didn’t let her cancer diagnosis and treatment spoil her wedding day. She married Josh England on June 28, 2019. During the reception, she danced the night away.
“She’s a warrior,” said another friend, Angie Howard.
“Cassie is the strongest person I’ve ever met in my life,” Olsson said.
Just three months prior to her wedding, doctors diagnosed Cassie with stage 3 breast cancer.
‘As positive as possible’
At just 18, Cassie had a lumpectomy for a non-cancerous, fibrous tumor in her right breast. Fourteen years later, at 32, she felt a lump in the same spot, in the same breast, doing a self-exam.
She admits not taking the lump seriously, partly because of her age and because the last tumor turned out to be benign. She was busy, planning the upcoming wedding, working as a talent specialist at Michigan Works in Big Rapids, and being a mom to her two children, Aiden and Aloura.
But Josh encouraged her—no, prodded her—to get it checked.
“I finally made an appointment to get him off my back,” Cassie joked.
Her Spectrum Health Big Rapids Hospital Family Medicine provider, Andria Keusch, PA-C, sent Cassie for an ultrasound and mammogram, followed by a biopsy.
A week later, late in the day April 10, Cassie received the call. She had breast cancer.
“The first day, I was obviously emotional,” she said. “It was hard to accept, because I was so young and being a mom. Everything runs through your mind like, ‘I’m too young for this,’ and you think about not being able to be there for your kids—those kind of things.”
She and Josh pushed for the first availability for subsequent tests and to start chemotherapy.
“I just wanted to get treatment started immediately, because I felt as soon as I could start treatment that was one step toward recovery,” Cassie said. She also focused on diet and exercise, anything she could take into her own hands to aid in the fight.
Chemo started two weeks later at the Spectrum Health Cancer Center at Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
From the moment of her diagnosis, Cassie said Josh, has been extremely supportive.
The couple first met in junior high, when Josh saved a seat for Cassie on the bus. Cassie wasn’t interested then, but they reconnected years later.
As her partner, Josh gave Cassie booster shots in her stomach, three days a week for three weeks during treatment. “A lot of trust there,” Cassie said, smiling.
“I just try to always be as positive as possible to support Cassie,” Josh said.
“He’s amazing,” Cassie said. “He’s been my biggest advocate.”
Full speed ahead
After the diagnosis, the couple discussed postponing their wedding, but ultimately decided it would stay on schedule.
“I’m happy we continued planning the wedding,” she said, looking back. “It was something positive to plan, something to look forward to. We all got to celebrate together on a happy note.”
A bachelorette party trip to Nashville, Tennessee, with the bridesmaids included a stop in Grand Rapids for Cassie’s weekly chemo treatment.
“It was really fun,” Cassie said of the Nashville trip. “It added normalcy to the process, so I’m glad I went.”
She’s also glad her chemo treatments are over, the last one being Aug. 1. She happily rang the ceremonial bell at the cancer center signifying she’d finished treatment.
Cassie had surgery to remove the tumor Aug. 27, and is undergoing follow-up radiation, but her pathology report showed she’s had a complete response to chemo, and the chances of it returning are slim.
Caregivers, family and friends have been awed by Cassie’s resiliency in the face of her diagnosis.
Her oncologist, Amy VanderWoude, MD, recognized Cassie’s positive attitude from the first.
“Her outlook during this difficult time has helped her overcome obstacles that would be daunting for many,” Dr. VanderWoude said. “This is how she lives her life. The team was so excited for her when she and Joshua had their wedding, right on time. We are behind her all the way.”
Family support, all around
Some of those obstacles include helping other family members cope with their cancer.
In October, doctors diagnosed her stepfather with brain cancer, and a month later, her father learned he had lung cancer. And, in June, her mother learned she has advanced ovarian cancer. She is staying with Cassie and Josh so the family can help with her care.
In the face of these challenges, Cassie remains resilient.
“She’s like everybody’s rock,” Howard said. “Not only is she staying strong for herself and fighting her own fight, but she’s completely there for everybody.”
“Even in her darkest moments, she’s still there for everybody,” Olsson added.
“I have no room for self-pity,” Cassie said. “I’ve had a couple of days where I needed to cry, but then I turn myself around. I don’t want everything to be about cancer, or poor me. I’m not dying. I plan on beating this.”
“I feel optimistic and thankful,” she said. “I’m thankful it’s me and it’s not my kids, and hopefully it’s never them.”
Josh and Cassie try hard to maintain normalcy as a family.
“We just like to be open and honest with them,” Josh said. “They’re both pretty mature and they deserve to know.”
“It’s very important because the whole family is going through this,” Cassie chimed in.
“I’m glad she’s not making secrets about it,” 9-year-old Aloura said. “I’m happy that she’s not in really bad pain.”
“I think she’s doing really good so far; she’s overcome a lot,” Aiden said. “I definitely think she’s going to beat it.”
Beautiful, inside and out
When it became clear Cassie would lose her hair due to chemo, they decided to make a night of it, having a head-shaving party with close friends and family.
“I had a hard time feeling beautiful losing all my hair, but Josh made it a point to tell me how beautiful I was all the time,” Cassie said.
Howard said looking good and staying fit has always been important to Cassie, so losing her hair was a blow.
“She’s a pretty vibrant person and style is a big part of her life,” Howard said. “It knocked her down a little, but then she picked herself right back up and was like, ‘We’re doing this, I’m strong, I’m beautiful, I got this.’”
“She cried for a second, but she has the most beautiful bald head I’ve ever seen,” Olsson said, who participated in the shaving party.
Cassie had dreamed of long, soft curls on her wedding day, so she ordered a special wig for the occasion. She had it styled professionally for the big day.
Upon hearing why, the salon owner refused payment.
“She said she had been through her own life struggles and was showered with support and love and wanted to do that for me,” Cassie said. “She told me how beautiful love is and that she was honored to be a part of my special day.”
“This truly started my wedding day off on such a positive, beautiful note,” she said.
As for the day itself, morning rain showers cleared for abundant sunshine, helping Cassie realize her dream of having an outdoor ceremony.
“It was an absolutely perfect day,” she said.
Showers early, abundant sunshine later. Hopefully a meaningful metaphor for Cassie’s health.
After all, once in remission, she has a honeymoon to plan.
“I’m thinking something tropical,” she said.
“I’m so lucky,” Cassie said. “I’m 33. I have an amazing life. I have an amazing husband, my kids are amazing. They’re healthy. I love my job. I really have no complaints.”