Strangers Donate Dream Wedding to Bride With Cancer

Of the thousands of weddings that no doubt took place in the U.S. on Sunday, there was at least one—between Jennifer Batugo and Brian Gargano, held in a picturesque Japanese garden on a Los Angeles hilltop—that had become a matter of life or death. 

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At least it felt that way for the bride, who was diagnosed with an extremely rare and aggressive form of breast cancer in late March. Told by doctors that she may only have a few months to live, Batugo, 29, and her fiancé decided they would move their August wedding to April. “We were given kind of a deadline, you could say,” Gargano told Yahoo! Shine. But they had no concrete plans set, and found themselves daunted not only by Batugo’s prognosis, but by the idea of pulling off a wedding so quickly.

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For help, Gargano placed a call to L.A. wedding officiant Elysia Skye. Though he didn’t know it at the time, Skye also happened to be a breast cancer survivor who runs a non-profit breast-cancer support organization. She said she cried when she heard the young couple’s story, promising Gargano, “I’ll take care of it all.” Then she sprang into action, kicking off an Indiegogo fund-raising campaign for the wedding and for medical expenses (which, active through April 26, has raked in nearly $13,000 so far). She also easily convinced Yamashiro Hollywood to donate its venue to the couple’s 30-guest event and got some of the top wedding vendors in L.A. to donate their services, mainly by enlisting one very dedicated wedding planner, Laura Guerrie of Rebel Belle Weddings, to orchestrate the event in 10 days flat.

“All of the usual push-pull between what the bride wants and keeping everybody happy is gone,” Guerrie told Shine, adding that there were no formal contracts with any vendors, just an overwhelming flood of enthusiastic verbal commitments to create a magical day for the young couple. And it paid off.

“It gave me a lot of hope,” Batugo told Shine two days before the wedding. “I’m fighting now.”

Just after the wedding, for which the bride wore a champagne-hued gown given to her by an engaged friend—as well as a flowing, dark wig (donated) to cover her own hair, which has already begun to thin from treatments—Batugo sounded positively gleeful. “It was such a beautiful day,” she said happily, “and we’re grateful for the graces we received.”

Guerrie added, “Jenn has one of the most positive, bubbly, lively personalities of anyone I’ve ever met, and she was absolutely ebullient today—laughing and dancing and enjoying every minute of the party.”

It was a marked improvement from how Batugo was understandably feeling just after her rare diagnosis of angiosarcoma of the breast on March 22. Until that point, she had been looking forward to marrying Gargano, 34, a respiratory therapist based in Phoenix, with whom she had embarked upon a whirlwind long-distance relationship, becoming engaged to on Valentine’s Day. But on that fateful day, she learned that she may not live through the summer, and that she would need to start aggressive, weekly chemotherapy treatments right next door to the hospital where she was employed as a gynecology oncology nurse.

“I feel overwhelmed, loved, blessed, but the fear and sadness is new. Anxiety keeps me up...” she wrote on her cancer support blog “I feel hopeless, but I’ve put on the brave, optimistic, smiley exterior people know me to have... but how to keep it up?!!”

The answer came unexpectedly, through the outpouring of love from people who had never even met her before, beginning when Gargano placed his call to Skye’s company L.A. Wedding Woman, which he found on Yelp.

“We met to talk about the wedding, and Jenn was asking me all these questions about treatment and wigs and intimate situations,” said Skye, who was diagnosed with stage-3 breast cancer just after her 24th birthday. After undergoing a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and many reconstructive surgeries, the wedding officiant started a side project, the Elysia Skye Breast Cancer Organization, focused on education and prevention.

“What’s inspiring to me is how much Jenn is inspired. Three weeks ago she was like, I guess I’m going to be dead this summer,” Skye told Shine. “Since this [wedding planning] started, she’s said I’m going to beat this. It just gives me purpose.”

In addition to the thousands of dollars raised through the Indiegogo campaign—which will not only be put toward Batugo’s medical expenses, but Gargano’s hurried relocation to L.A.—the crowd-sourced wedding welcomed a slew of donations. Those donated food and drink, photography, videography, makeup, accessories, balloons, hotel accommodations, flowers, music, wedding cake (“So many people wanted to donate the cake, it was crazy,” Skye noted), a white 1959 Rolls Royce, and, of course, the services of Skye and Guerrie. The total cost of the wedding, had it been paid for, would have run in the ballpark of $20,000, Guerrie noted.

The newlyweds said that having something positive to focus on has been vital to getting them through these past few weeks.

"There are so many bad things happening today, it's good to know there are good people out there, willing to help complete strangers," Gargano said.

Batugo told Shine just before the big day, “I think, in moments when I’m alone, and it’s quiet, like at the end of the day, I figure, oh, I’m still sick, and after this wedding I’ll have to still fight this cancer. But everyone has been coddling me with love, and I’m so grateful.” After the wedding, Batugo said that a personal highlight of the day had been the father-daughter dances, which Guerrie elaborated on for Shine.

“Instead of just doing the traditional ‘father-daughter’ dance, Jenn and Brian also chose to dance with the other’s respective parent. So Jenn danced with her dad, then his. And Brian danced with his mom, then hers. For that last one, their song choice was ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ by the Beach Boys,” she said. “Six-foot-plus Brian, and Jenn’s tiny little mom, and a message of ‘everything will turn out all right.’ Not too many dry eyes in the house at that moment.”

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