When Madison Stroup posted on TikTok about her husband Zach's journey with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, she simply wanted to raise awareness about cancer in young adults.
Now the video, which has more than 18 million views and 3.4 million likes since it was posted on Aug. 28, is going viral for capturing a moving story of a young man beating the odds and young love knowing no bounds.
The newlywed couple based in Fort Collins, Colorado, first met in high school in 2015 and started dating a few years later, Madison Stroup told TODAY.
In 2020, they were just like any other young adult couple: working, traveling and enjoying life. Zach Stroup, 26, owns an insurance agency, and Madison Stroup, 24, works as a hairstylist.
“I was really healthy before. I was into bodybuilding. ... I never went to the doctor ever,” Zach Stroup told TODAY.
One day while the couple was on vacation in February 2020, he started to complain about achy joints, fatigue and gastrointestinal problems. Two months later, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.
Crohn’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease that causes swelling in the digestive tract, which can lead to diarrhea, fatigue, fever, abdominal pain, weight loss and malnutrition, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Zach Stroup started medications for the Crohn’s right away, but they didn’t seem to be working. “He started to take a steep decline. He was having high fevers every single night, drenching night sweats. ... Within six months, he dropped (from 240 pounds to 160 pounds) without trying,” Madison Stroup said.
Assuming the Crohn’s had taken a turn for the worse, the couple kept seeing doctors to try to get it under control. One day in November 2020, Zach Stroup woke up with sharp chest pains and noticed he had a swollen lymph node on his neck "about the size of a golf ball," his now-wife recalled.
"Cancer never crossed our minds."
The next day, the couple went to the emergency room where doctors ordered a CAT scan.
“Cancer never crossed our minds, being 22 and 24 years old,” Madison Stroup said. “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."
After many more tests, Zach Stroup was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a form of blood cancer that starts in the lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell part of the immune system, and typically develops in the lymph nodes or lymph tissue, according to the American Cancer Society. It can occur at any age, and in the Stroups' case, it was aggressive.
"It was not hereditary at all. It was very random,” Zach Stroup said.
The cancer had spread outside his lymph nodes to other parts of his body, including his lungs and liver, which meant the cancer was stage 4.
“We didn’t really have a choice but to start treatments right away,” Madison Stroup.
According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, the five-year survival rate for stage 4 Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is about 64%.
After six rounds of intense chemotherapy, Zach Stroup went into remission in March 2021. A few weeks later, in April 2021, the couple got engaged.
“We kind of felt like cancer is in the past. We need to just try to move forward with our life, and our doctors have given us great odds that it wouldn’t come back,” said Madison Stroup.
“They said he had a high chance of relapse, but they told us if it relapses, we’ll just treat it again, kind of like if it was like a chronic disease,” she added.
As the months went by, Zach Stroup struggled to get his energy back or gain weight. “I started getting night sweats again, super bad fatigue. … I knew something was getting really bad,” he said.
“I kept telling myself it was just the Crohn's disease ... because we hadn't got that figured out yet,” he continued, adding that some of the symptoms of lymphoma and Crohn's were similar for him.
In September 2021, six months after he went into remission, he started feeling a tingling sensation in his feet, which moved into his calves and knees. The Stroups' oncologist chalked it up to a side effect of the chemo, but Madison Stroup had her doubts.
“I knew ... in my gut that (the cancer) was back, and it was in his central nervous system,” she said.
“I cannot believe this is happening to us again.”
When Zach Stroup woke up one morning in November 2021 and couldn't feel his legs, the couple went straight to the hospital.
"They (did) an MRI on Zach's brain and spinal cord .... and they found a tumor in Zach's thoracic spine," Madison Stroup said. The couple drove through the night to see specialists at the Colorado Blood Cancer Institute in Denver.
“They’re talking to us about spinal cord surgery, (and) we’re just sitting there like, I cannot believe this is happening to us again,” she said, adding that at this point her husband had lost feeling from his chest down.
“The neurosurgeon came in that night and said that we needed to operate ASAP or ... I’d be permanently paralyzed,” Zach Stroup said.
Although surgeons were able to successfully remove the tumor, he lost function of his right leg and had to start using a wheelchair and walker. After two weeks at a rehabilitation facility, he moved to another hospital to start chemotherapy again.
“Our oncologist was pretty optimistic that he would respond to it,” Madison Stroup added.
In March 2022, Zach Stroup got another MRI to clear him for a bone marrow transplant.
“The doctor found that the chemo stopped working and (the cancer) had spread to Zach's brain,” his wife said. “Zach would have to continue treatment, but they'd have to change the chemotherapy and do more rounds in hopes that the cancer would respond."
About one week into his new chemotherapy regimen, in April 2022, the couple faced another another setback: Zach Stroup suddenly became bloated and felt abdominal pain. Despite suspicions that it was just a Crohn's flareup, a nurse insisted on a CT scan of his abdomen because she thought something was seriously wrong. It turned out that his colon had ruptured during the chemo.
"(That) nurse saved his life," Madison Stroup said. Her husband was rushed into emergency surgery.
Despite the odds, Zach Stroup survived, but he had half of his colon removed and needed an ileostomy bag. “The colorectal surgeon who saved his life that night told Zach it was a miracle that he made it through without getting sepsis."
“He didn’t want to fight anymore.”
“At this point, knowing he had cancer that spread to his brain and then a perforation and chemotherapy on top of it, Zach was depleted,” said Madison Stroup. “He looked me in the eyes, crying, telling me that he didn’t want to fight anymore.”
They decided to make the most of the time Zach Stroup had left. The couple canceled their wedding set for May 2022 and instead planned an impromptu hospital wedding in 48 hours.
“The cancer had taken over our whole life for the last two years. We weren’t going to let cancer take away our wedding,” Madison Stroup said.
She wore her unhemmed wedding dress and had her hair and makeup done by nurses who came in on their day off.
“I got out of the elevator, and I saw all the nurses and oncologists and other surgeons all in a line cheering us on as I’m walking down the aisle ... and I see Zach sitting there in his wheelchair hooked up to an insane amount of medication,” said Madison Stroup, adding that although he was weak they were able to exchange vows.
On April 15, 2022, the Stroups were married in the hallway of the oncology floor at Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center in Denver.
They were only allowed to have their parents attend due to COVID-19 restrictions, but their “hospital family” made the day as special as possible, Madison Stroup said.
"Our wedding definitely gave me a lot of positivity and hope."
“I was pretty tapped out at that point. … Our wedding definitely gave me a lot of positivity and hope,” Zach Stroup said. “I had pretty much given up on myself, but I still wanted to fight for Maddy, and that’s what I did."
He finally began eating again, and after another round of chemo in May, an MRI showed that his cancer had responded. “I was cleared to go for my bone marrow transplant on June 6,” he said.
After a successful bone marrow transplant, he developed an abscess and went septic, landing him in the intensive care unit. While he recovered, Zach Stroup struggled with depression and panic attacks. “I really started to go mentally crazy because I had been in the hospital so long,” he added.
“I remember the first time I got to go outside. ... I just started crying. I was just looking at a parking lot and a couple of trees in downtown Denver, and I thought it was amazing.”
Zach Stroup was finally released on July 6, nine months after he was first admitted.
Two weeks ago, Zach Stroup was told he was in remission and his oncologist said the odds are good that his treatment has been curative. He's no longer receiving any treatment but is being monitored closely.
These days, the couple is back at home, taking things one day at a time and enjoying the “little things,” like sleeping in the same bed and cooking dinner, Madison Stroup said. “We have a completely new perspective on life."
Her husband is going to physical therapy to regain his strength and mobility and has been making good progress lately. "My goal is just to be able to travel ... to go out and see the world and live our lives and love each other," he said.
The couple has been overwhelmed by the response to their TikTok and made more videos to educate others about the symptoms of lymphoma in young people. Per Mayo Clinic, the symptoms of lymphoma can include painless swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck, groin or armpits, fatigue, fever, night sweats and weight loss.
“The lymphoma and Crohn’s symptoms were all pretty similar, that’s why we didn’t worry about it enough, honestly,” said Zach Stroup.
Ultimately, the couple hopes their story can spread hope. As Madison Stroup put it, “We (wanted) to inspire other people who are going through similar situations — whether it’s cancer or depression or other challenging things — to keep fighting because you never know what’s behind the next door."