Patrick Conway, MD, is usually all business when it comes to cancer.
The radiation oncologist at Gundersen Health System in La Crosse, WI, is used to being aggressive—the cancers he sees usually require immediate treatment and the plan has to be acted on quickly. His patients are usually as eager to get on with treatment as he is. But sometimes even he meets his match. Which is why what happened the Friday before Labor Day last year was so unusual.
That was the day Dr. Conway met with a 37-year-old never-smoker named Elvin Smothers who had previously been treated successfully for an oral tongue cancer.
His cancer, thought to have been in remission, had come back. Conway was meeting with Smothers and his fiancée, Kathy, to go over a new regimen that involved aggressive, grueling radiation treatments for cancer that doctors had found in his lungs and spine. Smothers' case was terminal, and he, his fiancée, and Conway all knew it as they sat together in the ICU.
Smothers had proposed to Kathy when a PET scan came back clean following two surgeries, chemo, and radiation treatments for his first cancer diagnosis. The wedding date was set for November 2013, but the new diagnosis gave Smothers a heightened sense of urgency.
"The cancer was growing despite treatments and we were making some adjustments," Conway says.
Conway asked Smothers what he wanted to do.
"He was a very quiet person, but we began talking to him about that," Conway says. "His fiancée spoke up and said what he really wants to do today is get married. That took me by surprise."