“Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly.”
Preeti Vasudeva, a stage 4 breast cancer survivor, leans on that mantra daily. Just as the butterfly represents endurance and hope, so does the life of Vasudeva, a wedding planner.
“I just really felt truly grateful and was like, how do I give back?” Vasudeva said as she prepared for the annual Wish Upon a Wedding benefit in NYC.
In 2015, Vasudeva’s life was consumed with wedding gowns and the elaborate details for the South Asian-themed destination weddings she was planning for clients. A Bowie native, she frequently traveled internationally to Jamaica, Mexico and the Cayman Islands with her company Preeti Exclusive Events. There was no time to slow down. Yet in the midst of her planning memorable events for happy couples, she had a scare. Vasudeva felt a lump by her armpit while taking a shower.
“During that time I was in the middle of a really heavy season, and so I wasn’t sure if it was lots of caffeine, lots of travel, lots of stress… and so I kind of ignored it,” said Vasudeva, who quickly learned that ignoring a symptom was not the answer. That was October 2014. Three months later she felt sharp pains on the same breast. Doctors sent her to get an ultrasound and then a mammogram.
“The results were actually quite startling. It turned out that the lump I was ignoring turned out to be the tumor and the one that was causing all that pain was nothing. So that was my body’s way of saying, ‘Stop ignoring me. You need to get yourself checked out,’” Vasudeva said.
A lumpectomy determined the stage 2 cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, requiring chemotherapy and radiation. Research and new lifestyle choices become her focus. She turned to a plant-based diet, yoga, meditation, and writing in a gratitude journal.
Vasudeva knew she wanted to continue helping couples make their wishes come true, but now she saw that a wedding could be a final wish for some.
“I contacted the organization Wish Upon a Wedding and said if there’s ever any type of opportunity that opens up…this is what I’m going through right now and I feel like I want to give back,” Vasudeva told the organizers.
The 10-year-old nonprofit group plans weddings and vow renewals for people with a terminal or life-altering illness; it has held over 150 events to date.
Wedding planning professionals like Vasudeva are encouraged to donate their time, money and expertise to deserving couples like Shonte Drakeford of Upper Marlboro, who is also living with stage 4 breast cancer.
Drakeford learned about the group online, as she was planning for her 10-year wedding anniversary in 2016. “I clicked it and I was like, ‘Oh that’s amazing, I’m going to cry,’” Drakeford said.
She was one year into treatment, and the exhaustion and pain required her to scale back her hours as a nurse practitioner. Having someone else take over the stress of planning her vow renewal ceremony was the perfect fit.
“It was important to me because what if I die in two months or next year? I don’t know. And I want to have a vow renewal,” Drakeford said, who is married to her high school sweetheart, Lavoisier. “It was like beyond belief…I can’t believe there are so many people out here that still have good hearts and good souls and (it’s) not all about the money.”
Vasudeva and Drakeford met through a local support group and realized their shared connection to Wish Upon a Wedding.
Surrounded by 25 of their closest friends and family members, Shonte and Drake’s vow renewal ceremony was held December 4, 2016 at City Club DC and planned by Marilyn Patterson of Joyous Events LLC. Toy Box Productions was the videographer. The invitations, officiant, cake, catering, hair and makeup, DJ and flowers, were all donated. All Drakeford had to buy was a new dress to fit their theme of “reflections”.
“It was phenomenal. I didn’t really have to worry about anything,” she said. Cancer has taught Drakeford to “enjoy your life.”
The weddings and vow renewals are held across the country nearly every Sunday through Thursday with a guestlist of up to 50 people.
On February 10, a fundraiser was held at the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City to raise money and celebrate the organization’s 10-year anniversary. Last year’s event raised $50,000, money that will be used to rent the venues or to pay for services. With 326 guests they raised $51,000.
“You’re overjoyed. You’re so grateful. You’re in love with love,” said Vasudeva, who explained that volunteering is great for her soul. “It’s literally impacted my life. Not that I’ve had a wedding wish, but the fact that I’m a cancer patient who is giving back to cancer patients.”
Vasudeva had been looking forward to her own celebration to mark five years since her diagnosis, meaning the cancer would have been in remission. But last year she learned the cancer has metastasized to her spine. Doctors can’t remove the tumor because of its location, so hormonal therapy with a small dose of chemotherapy has brought her tumor markers to a normal range for the first time since August 2018.
“I am living with Stage 4,” she says. Her doctors had hoped “all this medicine was going to make it a dormant tumor or at least shrink it to a point where it’s managed and maintained.”
There are days when she can’t work but she is always looking toward the future. She’s the co-founder of an event planning app called Styckie and now serves as a chapter treasurer of Wish Upon a Wedding.
“Helping people has helped me, but I’ve learned my limitations on what I can do so that I can be the best version of myself,” she said.
The best version of herself spreads her wings, just like a butterfly.