Spouse of 33-Year-Old Lung Cancer Survivor Advocates for Early Detection and Awareness

Author: Sarah Barber

"We want others around us to know the white ribbon symbolizes many things but most importantly means we are not in this alone."



It was November 2020 when Andy Wise developed a cough and shortness of breath and started suffering from daily headaches and a lack of energy. It was the peak of the COVID-19 global pandemic, and Andy thought that he may have contracted the coronavirus.

As the days went on, Andy’s spouse, Cassandra Wise, became concerned. He wasn’t getting better, and in fact, tasks he normally had no problem doing, like carrying 50-pound bags of feed for their animals, he was struggling to complete. A few weeks later, things took a turn for the worse and Cassandra knew something was wrong.

“His headaches now required Motrin and Andy never took pain medication,” said Cassandra. “We were worried and it wasn’t clear if this was COVID. After several trips to urgent care, every COVID test came back negative, and I had to do a lot of convincing for Andy to go to the emergency room.”

When Andy arrived at the McLaren emergency department in December, a chest x-ray showed what was thought to be pneumonia. The scan showed a shadow that covered roughly 40% of his lung. He was sent home with antibiotics, but after one week, his symptoms worsened. Andy returned to the emergency department.

“After several hours, numerous lab draws, and other scans, Andy’s chest x-ray showed no improvements from the prior week,” said Cassandra.

Andy was admitted for additional testing, including an EBUS bronchoscopy procedure that looks for different types of lung disorders, including inflammation, infections, and cancer. What happened next was seemingly impossible for a 33-year-old nonsmoker.

Dr. Salah Aboubakr placed his hand on mine and said ‘This is not good, and nothing like what I thought it would be.’ He was terribly sorry; I saw his eyes fill with tears, and he expressed to me that it appeared that Andy had at least stage III, if not stage IV, lung cancer,” said Cassandra. “My chest got heavy. I took a deep breath and knew I had to be strong, because no matter what, we had two young kids that needed us, along with Andy that needed me most.”

When Andy was out of recovery, Cassandra shared the news with him. At this point, it wasn’t clear if his specific cancer was non-small-cell adenocarcinoma or small-cell adenocarcinoma. If the diagnosis was small-cell adenocarcinoma, he could be facing a bleak prognosis of just a few weeks.

“We held each other tighter than we ever had before, we prayed together (something we never did before) and couldn’t put any right words beyond ‘I love you forever,’” said Cassandra. “I couldn’t handle the thought of Andy being gone. We would fight with everything we had, including our friends, family, entire community, medical staff, and people we didn’t even know.”

The next few weeks were a blur of doctor appointments. Andy was diagnosed with non-small-cell stage IV adenocarcinoma. This meant his cancer had spread to other parts of his body, including the brain. He went to the Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Greater Lansing for treatment. His oncologists, Dr. Amit Bhatt and Dr. Daniel Isaac, determined the best course of action was to begin brain radiation while they waited for a blood biopsy result to see if Andy had a genetic mutation present that would indicate a lung cell disorder that causes the cells to grow abnormally. The biopsy indicated Andy had the ALK+ mutation, and he started TKI (targeted therapy).

“It was a nightmare working with insurance. I never knew there were ‘specialty pharmacies’ and it would take time for the medication to be overnighted,” said Cassandra. “Thank goodness for the nurse navigators who helped guide me through the process and give me a heads-up that there might challenges, but there were also solutions.”

Becky Loomis, lung cancer nurse navigator, along with others, helped Cassandra work through the assistance programs, and Andy was successfully able to start his initial line of treatment.

Since his diagnosis, Andy has had progression, gone through brain surgery, and switched to a couple of different therapies, but more importantly, he is truly reminding himself to live each day to its fullest.

“No matter what tomorrow brings, he has had 22 additional months to see our children start kindergarten and preschool,” said Cassandra. “We do not put vacations on hold like we would have in the past; we focus our daily lives on living and laughing to redirect what is important in life.”

As Andy’s primary caregiver, Cassandra has learned to be stronger than ever before. She and Andy had to navigate difficult conversations with their two children, who were 13 months and three years old when Andy was diagnosed. 

“We still receive cards to boost our hopes and simply to let us know our friends and family care,” said Cassandra. “Knowing we have an entire community cheering us on makes being a caregiver much easier.”

Cassandra is also now an advocate for lung cancer awareness. She is involved in the White Ribbon Project, which was co-founded by Heidi and Pierre Onda. The first ribbon was created in fall 2020, when Pierre created one for Heidi to hang on their front door to symbolize unity and “You are not alone.” It is a symbol of increasing public awareness, sparking conversations, creating a sense of community, and, importantly, amplifying the message that lung cancer awareness must include early detection, treatment, research, and survivorship.

“Andy and I want to make an impact,” said Cassandra. “We both did not know anyone with lungs could get lung cancer whether you smoked or never had a cigarette in your entire life. We want others around us to know the white ribbon symbolizes many things but most importantly means we are not in this alone.”

Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Greater Lansing offers lung cancer screening program for those who have an increased risk of lung cancer. This includes current smokers or former smokers who have a 20-pack-per-year smoking history, who currently smoke, or who have quit within the past 15 years. To learn more about the Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Greater Lansing, click here.

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