On the back of Ian Wiek’s neck is a tattoo of a butterfly cradling a gray cancer awareness ribbon. His wife, Cassie, has a similar one on her back. They got them together, over two years ago, after Ian was diagnosed with brain cancer.
“She has one tattoo, I have like 50,” Ian said, laughing. “But this one’s important. The butterfly symbolizes a renewal of life. That always stuck with me.”
The idea of renewal has taken on new importance for Ian following his initial diagnosis in March 2015. Since then, he has continually battled recurrences of cancer.
His University of Minnesota Health Cancer Care team recently discovered that Ian’s cancer has once again returned. This time, it has spread to other locations within his brain and also to his spine. In light of this difficult news, Ian and his wife continue to count on their care providers, their faith, their positive attitude and their strong support system they’ve found at Resurrection Lutheran Church in Woodbury, Minn.
“This has really just been an important reminder of our faith. If God’s ready for Ian, then he is,” Cassie said. “Ian’s strong and he’s fought through it for this long—we’re not stopping now.”
Ian’s long journey began when he was first diagnosed with a primitive neuroectodermal tumor (PNET). Following the diagnosis, Ian underwent an initial round of radiation, chemotherapy and surgery to remove the tumor in 2015.
When the tumor returned in Oct. 2016, Ian and Cassie transferred his care to University of Minnesota Health Cancer Care, where Ian was initially seen by Pediatric Neuro-Oncologist Christopher Moertel, MD. After an evaluation, Moertel recommended a second surgery, which was performed by Neurosurgeon Matthew Hunt, MD.
Deep DNA sequencing performed on the cancerous tissue—plus changes in the tumor’s appearance under the microscope—revealed that the recurrent tumor had the characteristics of glioblastoma, a highly aggressive and malignant form of brain cancer. At that point, Ian was referred to the University of Minnesota Health adult neuro-oncology clinic. There, his care has been under the direction of Neuro-Oncologist Elizabeth Neil, MD. Together, she works with a team of doctors to provide the best-possible care for Ian. This includes Radiation Oncologist Jianling Yuan, MD, who administers the radiation therapy component of Ian’s treatment plan.
In fall 2016, Ian’s team employed an experimental combination of chemotherapy and immunotherapy, which kept the tumor silent for roughly six months. In 2017, however, new symptoms prompted extensive imaging. The imaging revealed that Ian’s cancer was progressing once more.
The Wieks are not ready to give up the fight, and neither is Ian’s care team.
Ian recently started Avastin, a drug that targets blood vessels and decreases swelling associated with cancer, in combination with a third course of radiation targeting the cancer in his brain and spine. Once his radiation is over, Ian has also elected to use Optune, a device that emits an electromagnetic field to disrupt rapidly producing cancer cells.
“I personally feel honored to work with patients such as Ian and his wife, Cassie,” Neil said. “They are kind, appreciative and strong-willed people. Seeing them fight makes me, as a physician and researcher, strive that much harder to care for them and find a cure for this horrible disease.”
The Wieks’ unwavering optimism while navigating the peaks and valleys of their journey is a testament to their faith. They credit their faith community at Resurrection Lutheran with helping them through these difficult times. Ian also gives back to the church by leading a youth group for high school students.
“Most people wouldn’t guess I’m religious,” Ian joked, referring to his many tattoos and piercings, “but my faith and the church have been so important to me.”
Just as important for Ian: Sharing his message of hope and renewal.
After his first brain surgery in 2015, Ian saw hospital staff passing out hats adorned with butterflies. An inscription inside each one described how butterflies symbolize a renewal of life. That experience planted a seed in Ian, who believes that the idea of rebirth and renewal are representative of his journey. Eventually, he convinced his wife to get their matching tattoos.
Now, after two and a half years, Ian has been renewed, too, learning what he truly values and what’s really important.
“Life could be so much worse. I know there are people worse off out there than me,” Ian said. “We have our bad days and I get tired, but every day is a blessing. Life’s too short. You have to be positive.”