They didn't have the faintest idea that his cancer would return when they got engaged last year.
Cancer is an exhausting and life-threatening illness that can change the course of lives in an instant. However, love and compassion can help a person heal and create memories while battling this excruciating disease. Zach Stroup's journey with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is one such tale of resilience and love in the face of a seemingly never-ending barrage of mental and physical challenges. His incredible story is now going viral on social media after his now-wife, Madison Stroup, shared it on TikTok in the hopes of educating others about the symptoms of lymphoma in young people.
A video documenting their grueling journey has gathered over 29 million views and almost 5 million likes since being posted in August this year. Madison explains in her video that when they were taking their engagement photos, they did not realize that doctors would soon find a tumor in Zach's thoracic spine. The diagnosis changed everything for the couple who met first met in 2015 in high school, according to TODAY.
They started dating a few years later and were thoroughly enjoying life, traveling, and working. However, one day while the couple was on vacation in February 2020, Zach began complaining about achy joints, lethargy, and gastrointestinal issues. He was diagnosed with Crohn's disease–a type of inflammatory bowel disease that causes swelling in the digestive tract–two months later. Although he started Crohn's medications straight away, they didn't appear to be helping.
Suspecting that the Crohn's had worsened, the couple continued to consult specialists in an attempt to bring it under control. Then, one day in November 2020, Zach woke up with intense chest pains and an enlarged lymph node on his neck. The couple rushed to the emergency room where doctors requested a CAT scan and the results were completely unexpected. Madison said, "Cancer never crossed our minds, being 22 and 24 years old. The doctor came in, and he looked like he had just seen a ghost... He told us, 'I believe you have cancer.' It felt like the walls were closing in."
More tests revealed that Zach had Non-Hodgkin lymphoma which, according to the American Cancer Society, is a type of blood cancer that starts in the lymphocytes and typically develops in the lymph nodes or lymph tissue. In Zach's case, the disease had progressed from his lymph nodes to other regions of his body, including his lungs and liver, putting him at stage 4. They had to start the treatments right away. He went into remission in March 2021 after six rounds of intense chemotherapy and the couple got engaged a few weeks later.
Madison said, "We kind of felt like cancer is in the past. We need to just try to move forward with our lives, and our doctors have given us great odds that it wouldn’t come back."
However, six months after going into remission, Zach began to experience tingling in his feet, which soon spread to his calves and knees. Although his oncologist suspected it might be a side effect of the chemo, Madison had her doubts. "I knew... in my gut that (the cancer) was back, and it was in his central nervous system," she said. In November 2021, doctors found a tumor in Zach's thoracic spine. By then, he'd lost feeling from his chest down and the couple was informed he needed immediate surgery to avoid permanent paralysis. Surgeons were able to successfully remove the tumor and Zach started chemotherapy again. "Our oncologist was pretty optimistic that he would respond to it," said Madison.
In March 2022, they found out that the chemotherapy had stopped working and that cancer had spread to Zach's brain. The couple's future hung in doubt and they did not know how much time they had left together. Having gone through months of chemo, multiple surgical procedures, and a never-ending list of complications, Zach told Madison that he "didn’t want to fight anymore."
Choosing to make the most of whatever time they had left, the couple canceled their May 2022 wedding and instead planned a hospital wedding in April this year. Madison explained in her TikTok video as she walked down a hospital hallway in a wedding gown with tears in her eyes, "We planned our wedding in 48 hours. All of our hospital family showed up since our family couldn't come."
The wedding instilled new hope and strength in Zach to fight and successfully win over several obstacles in his cancer journey. He is now one month in remission and is trying his best to adapt to his new life.
Cover Image Source: Instagram/Madison Stroup