I Lost An Eye To Cancer, Two Months Before Our Wedding

How it changed me in the best way possible

Our household was like that of many engaged couples after Alex’s proposal in September 2012: pins, lists, TLC reality shows. We adored wedding planning. We made every decision together from the caricature artist to our vinyl record themed seating plan. We wanted each choice to reflect our values and interests including our date: New Year’s Eve. You see, it had all started in the wee hours of a tavern NYE dance party, in which I asked Alex, “Do you like grilled chicken nachos?” The rest is history.

In comparison to all the other happenings of 2013, wedding planning had been the least stressful of all. Organizing our wedding was actually a retreat from the hectic work schedules, selling our two separate residences to relocate for my new job, purchasing of a home to begin our married life in, and then, the cancer.

On a Sunday in mid-October, we found ourselves nestled in a booth at a local restaurant when I noticed that something was wrong. The vision in my left eye became suddenly blurred and had flashing that resembled a kaleidoscope effect. At first, I assumed something was wrong with the lighting since the restaurant was dimly lit. Once we confirmed that Alex was not having the same issues, Alex pulled up a quick stroke checklist on his phone to rule-out that possibility. We ran through all the potential causes including the fact that I had recently been working long hours at my job as a high school counselor (i.e. arriving at the school at 5:00am and staying until 6:00pm). A four day weekend was coming up the following week (the benefit of a school schedule), and we decided to see if the issue remained after a weekend of rest and relaxation—it did.

There is a certain look on doctor’s face when they realize that you have a serious diagnosis like cancer. It’s a look that will forever remain in your memory. For me, this moment occurred after my optometrist saw the photos of each of my eyes. After showing me the photo of my healthy right eye, my left eye was brought onto the screen with a large, dark black mass covering the majority of the picture. This was the first time I saw my tumor.

Immediately sent to our local hospital to meet with an ophthalmologist, Alex and I heard the words “ocular melanoma,” “99.9% certain,” and the worst word of all, “fatal.” It was also the first time we had to consider the removal of my eye.

To be perfectly honest, I never felt scared with the news of our cancer or even the enucleation (removal of the eye). My life with Alex has always blown me away with how everything seems to fall in place exactly as it should, when it should. Any challenge that we have encountered ultimately has a reason and purpose I felt the same way about my cancer. I knew we were strong enough to conquer this challenge with our optimism and humor (we did not want cancer to stop us from laughing and making jokes).

We had been planning our wedding for over a year when I received my cancer diagnosis. We were only fifty-seven days away from getting married when I decided to have my left eye removed. Enucleation was the most logical form of treatment based on the size of my tumor, the location, and for my long-term health. We had learned by that point that the cancer had not spread, appeared contained, and we wanted to get that sucker out before it could harm any other part of my body. We want as many years together as possible. We have said that our wedding photos, with me and my eye patch as I will still be recovering on NYE, will tell the story of how our love blossomed in adversity.

Cancer is not going to change any part of the wedding day that we have so lovingly created. If anything, cancer and the preceding appointments and surgeries confirm our vow of “in sickness and in health.” Throughout this journey, I have fallen more in love with Alex as he made my laugh when I became frustrated with all the poking and prodding of my eyes and acted as my 24/7 nurse after each surgery. We have been reminded of our priority in life as husband and wife: to love and be happy. Life is too short to worry about small annoyances or trivial details.

Some things, like getting a rare form of cancer two months before your wedding at twenty-five resulting in eye removal, are out of our control, but what is always in our control is what we choose to do with our actions and words even in the most difficult circumstances. My wedding day will truly reflect our ability to remain positive, loving, and smiling no matter what lies ahead. For that, I will be the most thankful bride and wife.

An Update Post-wedding

Great people can and do work miracles. We experienced every emotion possible in the office of Dr. Philip Custer, my surgeon, but the one I will remember is the joy I felt on the Friday, a mere four days prior to our NYE wedding, when Dr. Custer informed us that with the progress of my healing, he made a special arrangement with an ocularist named Carolyn O’Neill to create my prosthetic eye. Technically, Carolyn’s office was closed that day for the holidays, but she made an exception for us to ensure that I could experience my wedding day patch-free. We will be forever grateful to those two people who worked a miracle for us.

I had already come to an acceptance with the story that my eye patch would tell in our wedding photos. Wearing an eye patch takes courage and bravery. I had experienced several insensitive pirate jokes and even a small child pointing and laughing throughout the two months I wore my patch. I was ready to take off the physical reminder of this battle and present the best version of myself as a bride: the woman who can fight cancer and win.

Our wedding day was the most meaningful day of my life at this point. The big reveal without my patch couldn’t have been more perfect. What better way to start our marriage and a New Year than with this news of success and recovery. Our love had gone through one of life’s biggest challenges, and we emerged happier than ever. We laughed, danced, and celebrated the entire night with our closest family and friends. Each detail that we had lovingly chosen and designed formed a beautiful representation of our love for one another. It was a perfect ending to this chapter of our story.

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  • PurpleHeather

    What a heartwarming tale – the way you and your partner handled such a difficult situation is an inspiration. I am so glad that you got to have such a happy wedding day, and I wish you both well for a long and happy future.

  • Carrie

    Thank you for making me smile this Monday morning. You are beautiful; and much love and health to you and your husband.

  • Noelle Bakken

    Thanks so much for sharing your story. My dad underwent a week of radiation therapy for ocular melanoma in his left eye right before Christmas this past year, so this is all too familiar to me. I’m so happy you had such a beautiful wedding day!

  • Caroline

    Tears. Thank you for sharing your courage, wisdom, and love. Big blessings to you and your husband as you face the next joys and challenges together.

    PS. You look gorgeous and so happy in your photos!

  • Another Meg

    You have an amazing attitude! It will serve you well in life. Also, as a proud St. Louisan, I have to say that Jefferson Memorial/Arch photo is gorgeous.


  • swarmofbees

    Your photos look lovely and you both radiate love!

  • MisterEHolmes

    I wish you and your family joy and many blessings. What a difficult situation!

  • Meg

    Thank you for sharing your story! You’ve got me choked up. What a great attitude you have.

  • Kayjayoh

    “Some things, like getting a rare form of cancer two months before your wedding at twenty-five resulting in eye removal, are out of our control, but what is always in our control is what we choose to do with our actions and words even in the most difficult circumstances.”

    This demonstrates that you are a rock star of strength and positivity.

  • Caitlin_DD

    You are a brave, lovely woman, and you have a wonderful husband. Here’s to your continuing health, healing and happiness! (Now then, I’ll just be over here crying…!)

  • Daniella

    This is so beautiful, your dress, your love, your wedding, your attitude – congrats!

  • JDrives

    I admire your positive attitude so, so much. What a wonderful story of love persevering through adversity and being a healing force. Congratulations!!

  • Greta M.

    Thank you so much for sharing this. Wishing the two of you a beautiful married life together!

  • Oh my goodness. You are a strong, strong woman. Wow…

  • Alex Hodschayan

    Dawn, you have been more than strong throughout this whole process. I thought that woman I would be marrying was incredible, but it wasn’t until I watched her face cancer until I truly understood how incredible she is. Every step of the way we found things to laugh about, found the positive in every situation. I am so proud of Dawn for so many reasons, but this showed me as much as I ever needed to see. This part of our life showed me that we could withstand everything. I love you, Dawn. I will always love you.

  • Emma Klues

    STL Love! I adore your photographer Brea, what a wonderful gal. And I love that people went above and beyond to make an exception. Congratulations!

  • This: “what is always in our control is what we choose to do with our actions and words even in the most difficult circumstances”

    That’s exactly it.


    • Laura

      YES! Some of the most important advice my mom bestowed on me is, “you can’t help how you feel, but you can control how you act.”

  • macrain

    My dermatologist has encouraged me to get checked for ocular melanoma since I have a lot of moles, and I never have. You had better believe I’m making an appointment today.
    Beautiful post. Thank you.

  • Eenie

    I love how ready you were to rock the eye patch for your wedding. That takes a special kind of strength. Puts things into perspective very quickly. Best wishes and good health to your baby family!

  • Rachelle Reese

    You’re just an amazing example of what a wedding is really about! Thank you so much for sharing your story. So glad you had an amazing wedding day and were able to get the prosthetic in time for those gorgeous pictures! Your ocularist is a testament to there being good people left in the world. As for your husband’s sweet comment, I just… you’re a lucky lady!

  • Amy

    Wow…what a story! You’re beautiful in the wedding shots, but also…I think you looked pretty bad a$$ in the patch! Congratulations on a beautiful wedding!

  • Laura

    The love you and your husband clearly share is inspirational. Good on you for staying so positive and upbeat during a tough time. Your photos are beautiful!

  • Class of 1980

    Amazing attitude!

  • Robyn

    What a beautiful, beautiful story. I’m amazed at your optimism and ability to persevere through such a difficult time in your life and emerge from it even stronger as a couple.

  • Laura

    Serious illness can make or break a relationship. It’s so brave to write your story for the whole internet to see. Thanks, APW, for sharing it.

  • Jessi

    All the feels! So happy you two have each other!