Late on Feb. 22, doctors told Jason Spencer his health was declining so rapidly, he might not live through the night.
Spencer, 46, had been battling Stage 4 colon cancer for two years. It had spread to his liver, lungs, kidney and spine, but now, doctors said, the cancer had reached his brain.
From his hospital bed, Spencer told the doctors he wanted only one thing, and he knew he had to move quickly.
“Please, just let me marry my sweetheart,” he recalled saying.
Spencer was referring to his partner of 28 years, Jodi Wilber. The pair met in 1990 as teenagers at a summer festival in Minnesota. A friend of Wilber’s wanted to set her up with a friend of Spencer’s.
“But when I laid my eyes on Jason, I said, ‘I’ve just got to have him,’ ” the 45-year-old said. They’ve been together ever since, and have two sons together.
Now, as Spencer faced his own mortality, he wanted to make their union official.
Spencer and Wilber already had the dress, the suit and the rings — they had planned to marry at a nearby hotel on March 2. But they realized Spencer might not make it to the hotel for the wedding, so they asked the hospital staff if they could use the on-site chapel. It was just downstairs in the hospital where Spencer was being treated, Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids, Minn.
Doctors and volunteers scrambled to set up for the wedding. Hospital staff decorated the chapel and coordinated a small reception in the cafeteria following the service.
On Feb. 23, at the hospital’s small chapel, their family and friends packed the pews. “Not everyone could fit,” Spencer said.
Spencer and Wilber exchanged their vows. Spencer was fatigued, and his voice was weak. But he smiled when Wilber said, “I love you, I will love you for eternity, and I will make sure everything is taken care of.”
The wedding was an “emotional roller coaster,” Wilber said. Her sister was admitted into the Mercy Hospital emergency room with a heart problem right before Wilber walked down the aisle. And in the forefront of Wilber’s mind was her mother, who had died in the same hospital only months earlier.
The newlyweds spent their wedding night in Spencer’s hospital room. Their sons, Brandon, 21, and Daymon, 18, brought them dinner from TGI Fridays, at their request.
Spencer didn’t die the next day. In fact, he was strong enough two days later to go home, where he entered hospice care.
It had been two years since Spencer was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer during a routine colonoscopy. That same day, doctors told him the cancer had already spread to his liver and lungs.
“I was scared, but I’ve always been a fighter,” said Spencer.
The same cancer killed Spencer’s father in 2008, when he was about 54 years old.
The news of Spencer’s diagnosis terrified Wilber. But she had to be strong for him and their sons, she said.
She told her partner they’d attack it together.
They remained optimistic, despite doctors’ unnerving prognoses. Spencer underwent multiple surgeries to remove his colon and part of his liver, along with aggressive chemotherapy treatments. Some doctors thought the cancer was curable.
But by the end of last year, the cancer had spread to his spine and kidneys. “It was devastating,” Wilber said of the discovery.
Spencer took the news as a sign to propose to Wilber, saying he felt a sense of urgency. He popped the question last month in the family’s house in Anoka, Minn. She said yes, and they set a date, March 2, with their sons watching.
“They were so happy,” Spencer said. “‘They were like, ‘Finally!’ ”
Wilber said they had not thought about marriage before because "we always felt like we were married in our hearts.”
On Feb. 25, Spencer started in-home hospice care. The newlyweds spend their days watching movies, entertaining family and soaking up each other’s company. Spencer’s doctors now estimate he has up to three months to live. He said his wife keeps him strong.
“She’s the strongest woman I know, getting me through this,” said Spencer. “We’re a team.”
Spencer wants to live long enough to see his younger son graduate from high school in June. And he has another hope: that anyone with a family history of cancer gets a checkup now, rather than waiting until it’s too late like he did.
“If I can convince one person to be proactive about their health, I’ll have done a good job,” he said.