Colo. Man Battling Incurable Cancer Marries Fiancée: 'We Suddenly Saw That We Didn't Have Forever'

·6-min read
Wedding of Catherine Hammond and Brian Van Way
Wedding of Catherine Hammond and Brian Van Way

Marisa Youngblood Catherine Hammond and Brian Van Way

Two days after being told that his incurable cancer had come back, Brian Van Way proposed to his girlfriend. At their wedding two weeks ago, he stumbled during his vows when he talked about how he may not have very long to live.

"It seems like such a shame. It seems like such extraordinary sadness, to find such a beautiful thing and then to know that it's probably not going to last very long," Brian, 52, tells PEOPLE. "It's a real punch in the gut."

But, he adds, "I'm grateful to be here anyway."

Brian and his wife, Catherine Hammond, are sharing their story because they want others to embrace hope, joy and love even during the most difficult times.

"For us, it's about redefining hope," says Catherine, 57. "Hope for us doesn't mean that everything will go exactly the way we want in the future. Hope means that we are okay today. We will be okay and even able to have joy, no matter what."

The couple met on OkayCupid in August 2014. During a business trip in Colorado Springs, Brian asked Catherine to go to dinner with him — and that night, they talked and talked for hours.

"I was smitten," says Catherine, an attorney, financial advisor and life transition coach.

They started spending all their weekends with each other, culminating in their decision to move in together in 2018.

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All was well until one evening in August 2019, when Brian was getting ready for bed and Catherine heard him moaning and vomiting in the bathroom. She went to check on him and watched in horror as he collapsed on the floor. Catherine called 911.

Brian hung on, getting dressed and making it to the living room floor before he collapsed again and started vomiting blood. That's the moment he knew something was very wrong, he recalls.

At the hospital, doctors explained that a tumor larger than seven inches long had grown inside Brian's stomach and burst his small intestine, Brian recalls. Just as Brian was being wheeled into surgery, Catherine says, she was told he only had a 50-50 chance of surviving the operation.

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Brian says he was diagnosed with a mesenteric desmoid tumor, a rare disease for which there is no cure. The medical team removed the tumor and told him to wait and see if it came back. For some people, it doesn't.

"I was hoping that it would be a one-time thing," Brian says. "I was trying to pretend like it happened, and it was over, and we could get on with our lives."

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While they were waiting, the couple spent time with their family — including weekly sleepovers with Catherine's grandkids — and enjoyed each other's company, taking online cooking classes, remodeling their kitchen and going for long walks.

But when Brian went in for a routine CT scan in June 2021, his oncologist said they found at least a dozen tumors in his stomach. Because the tumors were growing so fast, his doctor said that without successful treatment, he only had about 18 months to live, Brian recalls.

That night, Brian called everyone the couple loves. "I didn't want them to be surprised when I died," he says. "I hadn't imagined I would be saying that in my early 50s."

Although she felt terrified, overwhelmed and devastated, Catherine says she was "immediately resolved to make the most of every single moment that we have."

Before his diagnosis, the two had talked about marriage, but Catherine said she didn't feel like they were in any rush. "I tried getting married before and it certainly never made me happy," says Catherine, who had tied the knot four times.

But after the tumors came back, Brian, who had never been married, thought to himself, "Don't wait any longer."

Wedding of Catherine Hammond and Brian Van Way
Wedding of Catherine Hammond and Brian Van Way

Marisa Youngblood Catherine Hammond on her wedding day

Two days after receiving the devastating news, he proposed.

"I realized life is short and I wanted to get married," Brian says. "There's so many things I love about her. I feel like I'm just an alien robot and she shows me how to be in the world, how to live with heart, how to live with passion and emotion and all of the things that make life wonderful and colorful."

"We suddenly saw that we didn't have forever," adds Catherine. "This amazing man was very different from anybody that I had met or married before."

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Wedding of Catherine Hammond and Brian Van Way
Wedding of Catherine Hammond and Brian Van Way

Marisa Youngblood Catherine Hammond

After six months of chemo, Brian's tumors have now shrunk. He says he feels good, but doctors are vague about his prognosis.

"It's a pretty rare disease," he says. "It's probably going to come back."

Still, they are determined to find joy and hope amidst the unknown. In April, Catherine self-published a book, hope(less): The truth about hope and where to find it.

"I think that hoping, wishing for things to be different is most of why we feel hopeless. We don't need things to be different. We already have hope right here," Catherine says. "It's just thinking that we don't, that's the only problem."

Wedding of Catherine Hammond and Brian Van Way
Wedding of Catherine Hammond and Brian Van Way

Marisa Youngblood Catherine Hammond and Brian Van Way

The couple's big day was a joyous affair alongside loved ones on Saturday, June 11 at The Margarita at Pine Creek. "The wedding was more magical than I ever could have imagined," Catherine says. "I was overflowing with joy."

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Afterwards, they honeymooned for 11 days in Northern California, including San Francisco, and came home in time to have a weekend slumber party with the grandkids.

For now, they plan to spend time at Catherine's daughter's new home in Hawaii, but they may start traveling and living in new places for month-long periods.

"We're really in this together," Catherine says. "This isn't me and Brian — it's us."

"None of us have unlimited time with a spouse," she adds. "Life will not stay the same. Life will change, sometimes in ways that we like, sometimes in ways that we wouldn't choose. We can always live bravely and beautifully, no matter what life throws us."

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