Marrying his high school sweetheart in his hometown of Kewanee, Ill., was a day Nolan Keane had dreamed of but didn't know if he'd live to see.
That's because Keane, 28, has been battling brain cancer for the past four years -- fighting the disease for almost four full years longer than doctors originally expected.
"We have wanted to do this for a long time and we've talked about it for a really long time," his sweetheart, Morgan Carstens, 26, said of the wedding. "It's amazing that we get to see our friends and family and be together."
Keane, whom Carstens now proudly calls her husband, was diagnosed with an aggressive type of brain cancer in 2008 and told he had one year to live.
The diagnosis of stage 4 glioblastoma multiforme was devastating for the Missouri State University grad and former Division I baseball player, but he was determined to fight.
Fight he did, undergoing eight brain surgeries and rounds of chemotherapy and trial treatments, with Carstens all the while by his side.
Carstens, a 26-year-old registered nurse, put her work on hold, moving in with Keane's family to care for him, helping him with the simple things like getting dressed, taking a shower or walking without his wheelchair.
"I didn't think twice about it. I knew he needed me and I would kind of feel guilty taking care of others," she said. "We just take it day by day and we make it work. ... You get put in a situation and you do what you have to do."
Last November, on a family trip to Disney World, Keane proposed to Carstens, getting out of his wheelchair and down on one knee, to her surprise.
"We went to go see the fireworks. Since there was so much walking, he told me, 'My back is really hurting. Can you get me out the wheelchair?' And then [he] got down on one knee and I forgot to say yes. I think he kind of knew by my response," she said.
After the results of a recent MRI showed that Keane's cancer had spread and he had months left to live, Keane told family and friends his final wishes were to marry Carstens -- something he considered long overdue -- and take their honeymoon to the place he proposed, Walt Disney World.
"He just loves that place and has gone every year growing up," she said. "He's a little kid at heart and when he goes it brings back so many good memories. [It is] a place to forget about all the bad things and enjoy every single moment."
Friends and family set out to make the couple's final days together the most memorable possible.
Carstens' sisters, Jaclyn Carstens and Lindsey Williamson, were determined to help give the couple the "dream wedding" they felt they deserved but couldn't afford on their own. They rallied the community, raising money and awareness on Facebook.
Then, in late February, they set up a fundraising page on GiveForward.com, a website that specializes in raising money in a medical crisis, and it went viral. The couple's story was first reported in the Chicago Sun-Times and spread.
In only four days, complete strangers contributed $60,000 -- far exceeding their initial $20,000 goal -- to put towards their honeymoon to Disney World. Now, the donations have totaled $66,397, shocking Keane and Carstens.
"We have been only asking for support, encouragement and prayers, so when all of this blew up we all had every single emotion as possible about it. It's inspiring to see so many good-hearted and caring people out there," Carstens said. "We were kind of in shock. We'll sit up and we'll read [the comments], and sometimes we'll cry and smile. We are blessed."
On March 9, Keane got his first wish fulfilled. The two tied the knot in Peoria, Ill., surrounded by friends and family. Local wedding vendors donated everything, including the photographer, hair and makeup for the bridal party, and food, to make their big day a fairy tale.
"It started with flowers and friends donating some food," Carstens said, "and then a wedding planner donated her time to get things together. It's been an outpouring from the community. They've made this whole day possible for us."
Their slogan, "Nolan Wins," which has been printed on wristbands worn by supporters throughout Keane's fight against brain cancer, was tweaked for the occasion: "Nolan Wins, Nolan Weds."
"He's been such a fighter. He's grown into such an amazing person. He was amazing person and he's even more amazing now," the bride said.
Carstens said they plan to take their honeymoon to Disney World at the end of March and put the rest of the money towards medical bills and towards making the accommodations at Keane's parents' home even more wheelchair-friendly.
"This experience has made us look at life differently," she said. "We are extremely thankful."
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Credit: brooke alaina photography
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