When Tristin Laue and Tianna Hargrafen wed in the backyard of the Laue family residence, there was naturally cause for celebration. But this was no ordinary wedding ceremony, as the couple were in a race against time to tie the knot. Tragically, the groom was gravely ill with a rare form of liver cancer, and he and his fiancée were carrying out his final wish before it was too late.
And Tristin had learned that he had the disease after enlisting in the United States Army National Guard in July 2016. Upon his return from boot camp, he had been given a diagnosis of fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma (FLC) – an uncommon type of liver cancer that tends to be found in teens and younger adults.
After discovering that he had cancer, then, Tristin received his medical discharge from the National Guard in April 2018. But there was still a glimmer of hope on the horizon for the former military recruit. Just as he was finishing up immunotherapy, he began to embark on a new relationship with Tianna. And the couple’s romance would blossom into something more serious, too – even as Tristin began to suffer complications from his cancer.
Tianna and Tristin had come together in part because they both shared a great love of dogs. Somewhat inevitably, then, Tianna’s German Shepherd, Max, found a new admirer in Tristin – just as his owner had. And in a further twist of fate, the pair also shared the same birthday, although Tristin was a year senior to Tianna.
Ultimately, the couple fell deeply in love to the point that Tristin felt ready to pop the question during Easter 2019. And although her beau was succumbing to his illness, Tianna did not need asking twice. Upon hearing that the pair had agreed to marry, then, Tristin’s family got into action.
And Tristin’s loved ones certainly didn’t hang around. Just two days after hearing that they had to prepare a wedding, in fact, the groom’s relatives had everything ready. Tristin, too, was all set for the big day despite his illness.
Yes, as Tianna later explained to KTVU, Tristin wanted nothing more than to get hitched to her. In May 2019 she told the Oakland-based station, “Tristin was just excited to be marrying me, so he was ready for it.” Consequently – and although the groom was very sick by then – the couple made their vows on April 27, 2019.
Well before his marriage, though, Tristin had grown up in Waverly – a small city in the northeast of Iowa. And there, he’d enjoyed life outdoors, taking part in boating, whizzing around on jet skis and setting up camp with family and friends. He’d also been a keen shooter and gun collector.
Then, after graduating high school, Tristin chose to go into the National Guard, although his stint in the military was cut short by his cancer diagnosis. He had been in the army for less than two years when he was discharged owing to his battle against FLC.
However, Tristin may have been sick for some time before his diagnosis. You see, people in the early stages of FLC may not show any signs of having the disease. And if symptoms do ultimately arise, these indicators may well be confused for those associated with more common diseases.
Specifically, markers of FLC include not being hungry, losing some weight and stomach pain; a sufferer may also feel a bit tired or generally unwell. And though the scarring and inflammation that are seen with other liver cancers isn’t present in FLC, sometimes a lump can be felt if the liver is examined.
Consequently, if a doctor does suspect FLC, they’ll need to order some form of imaging to make a diagnosis. In that way, then, CT or MRI scans and ultrasound will typically be used to find the cancer and decide how far along it is. And there’s a further complication in pinpointing the existence of FLC: levels of serum alpha fetoprotein aren’t higher than usual in the body, as is typically the case with other kinds of liver cancer.
Indeed, FLC is altogether quite a mystery. Whereas other liver cancers can arise after the organ is damaged through alcohol abuse or through autoimmune disease or viral infection, FLC’s cause hasn’t been pinpointed. However, research does suggest that a gene deletion might be involved – one that materializes just through the process of living rather than by being inherited.
Unfortunately, then, FLC’s lack of distinct symptoms as well as the difficulty in diagnosis mean that the cancer is often found only after it has spread. In these cases, moreover, patients have a very poor outlook. And chemotherapy is no help in FLC, either, which leaves only one option for treatment: having the tumor cut out.
In some instances, the whole liver has to be extracted – meaning patients will subsequently require liver transplants. However, if the disease is caught early enough, only the affected part of the organ needs to be taken out. And after that partial removal has been achieved, there are good prospects for the person with FLC.
Indeed, the prognosis is better for those who have FLC than it would be if they had another sort of liver cancer. More than half the people who have surgery to remove FLC cells survive for five years or longer, in fact; without such medical intervention, by contrast, a sufferer may live for only a bit more than a year.
And, interestingly, a special property of the liver will come into play after surgery. The organ’s ability to regenerate means no long-term harm will likely be done, too. In fact, the liver will typically regain normal function after about three weeks and should return to its former size within six months.
Nonetheless, FLC is a serious disease, and Tristin suffered problems after treatment. It seemed, then, that the veteran was losing his battle. And in March 2019 Tristin’s loved ones duly received some terrible news: in short, there were no other ways in which medical intervention could help him fight the cancer.
Yet despite his prognosis, Tristin had been looking to the future. During 2018 he had signed up to study engineering design at the University of Northern Iowa, and his heart was set on excelling at school. Tristin’s family later explained, too, that the young man had been “very goal-oriented and had a bright future ahead of him.”
And, of course, alongside his studies and a job at Iowa company Ronan Industries, Tristin also had a new girlfriend to fill his life. Tianna later sang her beloved’s praises to KTVU, explaining how highly intelligent Tristin had been. In particular, when the pair had watched Jeopardy! together, the veteran would “almost always” figure out the solutions to the questions.
After receiving the dire news that he would be receiving no further treatment, however, Tristin started to think about what he really wanted from what was left of his life. And one thing seemed to be clear to him as his last wish: he became determined to wed his beloved girlfriend, Tianna.
However, Tristin was not certain that Tianna would agree that it was in her interests to become his wife. And as a consequence, he explained to his girlfriend that he wanted to be certain of her feelings about marrying. As Tianna told KTVU, Tristin had “wanted to be fair to [her].”
Yet Tristin need not have worried, as Tianna was keen on the marriage herself. She explained her response to KTVU, revealing, “And I said [that] of course I wanted to marry him. I always told him [that] it wasn’t that easy to get rid of me, so I’d always be there.”
As it happens, Tristin had hoped to make their shared birthday, May 11, the day of their wedding. But that wasn’t to be; owing to the progress of his disease, speed was of the essence. And the Wednesday after Tristin’s proposal, his family received news that prompted them to bring forward the celebrations.
Consequently, Tristin’s loved ones got busy – and locals backed them up. Using social media and text messages, the impromptu organizers shared ideas about dresses, catering, shelter for the backyard wedding and snappers for the wedding photos. And in just a couple of days, everything was set for the marriage in the Laue family’s own backyard.
Snow lay on the ground around the tent as the couple and their family and friends gathered. Beautifully dressed bridesmaids looked on with devotion, too, as the pair exchanged vows and rings, while an honor guard of male friends also stood behind Tristin’s bed, where he rested warmly against the spring chill.
And Tianna’s adoration is clear to see in footage of the occasion that was later shared by Iowa TV station KWWL. In the video, she is seen resplendent in a long white dress and veil and clutching her beloved’s hand. Tristin belies the seriousness of his condition, too, with a heartwarming smile – seemingly delighted that his last desire has been fulfilled.
Tianna would later share her feelings during the wedding when speaking to KTVU. She told the station, “When I met [Tristin] at the end of the aisle, we looked at each other, and he smiled in a way I hadn’t seen in a long time. I got teary-eyed and could hear the bridesmaids breaking down.”
Tianna also told KWWL how she felt about the guests who had turned up to the wedding. There, she said, “[It’s] incredible, really. [It] just showed how many people cared about [Tristin] and wanted him to be happy.” And the bride, too, was moved by the occasion. She revealed to KTVU, “I knew no matter what I’d always love him, and he’d always love me.”
Meanwhile, at around the same time as the ceremony, representatives of Tristin’s university handed him a certificate commemorating the conclusion of his final semester of study. And one of the university’s agents shared with the young man just how impressed she had been by his bearing. She explained to KWWL that it had all been in “the way [he conducted] and [carried himself]. I was like, ‘Wow, this is officer material.’”
Sadly for Tristin, married life would be all too short. Within mere hours of his wedding, he had succumbed to cancer. But although the young man’s widow would have keenly felt the loss, she may have been glad that she had been able to make some of his last moments happy and full of love.
Indeed, Tianna shared with KWWL her belief that you have to make the most of the time that you have. She told the station, “Make sure you tell people you love them, because you never know when you’ll be able to, and just make sure you cherish every day – even if they’re having a rough day or getting really upset.”
And when talking to KWWL, Tianna paid further tribute to her late husband by saying, “He’s the love of my life. Even like talking to my mom and everything… She said, ‘Some people don’t get what you two had in the amount of time. They’ll be together for years and still not have the same connection that you guys did.’”
On top of that, Tianna also felt that Tristin would have liked to know his story had gone viral. She told local paper The Courier in May 2019, “He wanted our wedding to be big.” The young widow further explained, “It’s comforting to think [that] he’s looking down and seeing how many people know a little bit of him now. And even if it wasn’t in the exact same way he wanted, he got his wish.”
So, just a week after her wedding, Tianna had to attend another ceremony – this time one that would be a lot sadder. On May 4, 2019, Tristin was laid to rest at Waverly’s Harlington Cemetery. And an honor guard saluted the veteran, as did many who paid tribute to Tristin in the comments section of his online obituary.
What’s more, a classmate from New Hampton High School chose to celebrate Tristin’s life by starting a GoFundMe campaign to pay for a memorial bench in his name. In addition, they hoped to add Tristin’s details to the Chickasaw Legacy Pathway. “Help us remember a great Chickasaw who brought laughter and kindness to us all!” the fundraising page exhorted.
And within three weeks, the endeavor had exceeded $5,000 along with many comments that paid tribute to Tristin. Some words came from fellow cancer sufferers, while others were written by veterans or those who had both spent time in the military and had battled against cancer. One comment said, for example, “Hello, I am soooo sorry that y’all lost [Tristin], and I only hope that you can feel better over time. I also served in the military five years ago, and I’m dealing with stage four cancer right now that was removed from my brain.”
At the same time, when Tianna posted a wedding photo on Facebook, a number of users of the social media site shared how the snap had made them feel. A relation of Tristin’s, Hana Laue, said in response, “Thanks for joining our family and loving him through all of this. You’re truly a fighter just like our Tristin.” Another commenter, meanwhile, noted how happy Tristin had looked during the occasion, writing, “You definitely made his day.”
Now, though, Tianna must face a future without the man whom she told KTVU was the “best thing ever to happen to her.” She continued, “I feel blessed to have loved and been loved by such an amazing brave man.” And her memory will be of a short but happy relationship in which the two “never went to bed angry.”
But perhaps Tristin’s aunt, Kelly Larson, summed up what needed to be said in a May 2019 Facebook post. There, she wrote, “Tristin’s story reminds me of grace, of the power of love [and] of beauty in the hardest times. Of not giving up and embracing what there is to embrace in life.” She concluded, “Whatever you take from this story, I hope it inspires something of life and love in your heart today.”