In the past year, Drew Lewis has proposed to his now-wife, celebrated his wedding day and received a life-changing diagnosis of stage 4 colon cancer.
He’s also realized the power of social media, the power of friends lending a helping hand and, in this holiday season, the power of giving thanks.
Lewis is scheduled to undergo surgery today just days after their healthcare provider dismissed their appeals to pay for the life saving procedure as well as an earlier surgery. His medical bills, he estimates, will be about $400,000.
But Lewis and his wife, Amy Blansit, 33, of Springfield, Mo., have been buoyed by an outpouring of financial and emotional support from family, friends and strangers who have sent the couple nearly $20,000 in the past week through a Facebook page and the charity website GiveFoward.com.
“It really is unbelievable what people are doing,” Blansit told ABCNews.com.
Lewis, a 45-year-old real estate agent, was diagnosed with colon cancer in January after a colonoscopy revealed tumors throughout his body and cancer that had spread to his lymph nodes.
Through nine months of chemotherapy and two surgeries to remove the tumors, Lewis and his wife relied on each other and turned down the often-overwhelming offers of help from friends and family.
“We’ve had friends from the beginning who wanted to help – bring food, cut the lawn – anything that they can do to help,” Blansit said. “We kept turning them away.”
The couple, who are raising Lewis’ two teenage children from a previous relationship, turned their friends away even as they received the devastating news that Lewis’ insurance carrier would not pay for the surgeries to remove his tumors, treatments that doctors told him would stretch his life expectancy from one to two years to at least seven.
Lewis and Blansit got that news just hours before Lewis’ second surgery in October but decided to forge ahead with that procedure, as well as a third and final operation – scheduled for today – at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
“We thought this is our only chance and if we have to downsize and change our lifestyle to make it happen then we will,” Blansit said. “You can’t really put a price tag on what you would do in this situation and what life means. There’s really not a number for it.”
The couple appealed the insurance decision but found out last week that their appeal had been denied. Lewis’ insurance carrier declined to cover the operations because they were classified as “experimental” and “exploratory,” according to Blansit.
The network of doctors and hospitals that Lewis visits, HealthLink, said the decision not to pay for Lewis’ surgeries was made by United Security Life and Health, a separate company which it said is Lewis’ insurer. United Security Life and Health declined to comment to ABCNews.com, citing privacy laws.
That same week, Lewis and Blansit’s friends and family, without knowing the couple’s insurance woes, stepped in to help.
“We kept turning them away and then at Thanksgiving they just ignored us,” Blansit said.
The couple’s friends and family decided to use the social media tools that Lewis had been using to keep them updated on his progress as a way to raise money for the couple, both of whom have been unable to work due to Lewis’ treatment.
Lewis’ co-workers began a fundraising drive at the couple’s bank and shared the information on Lewis’ Facebook page.
As Lewis’ coworkers helped in Springfield, Blansit’s sister and brother-in-law, thousands of miles away in Las Vegas, established the “Drew Lewis Colon Cancer Fund” on GiveForward.com.
In just one week, nearly $10,000 has been raised by Lewis’ colleagues and another $9,000 has been collected on GivingForward.com.
“It’s one of those things where we’re so far away from everyone who is doing it. It’s such a neat way to be connected,” a grateful Blansit said.
It wasn’t until the hospital bills began to arrive this week and their appeal was denied that they let their family and friends know that they were tackling Lewis’ treatment without the aid of insurance.
“It’s a hard thing to get to and to discuss because it also means that Drew is not able to provide for his family,” said Blansit. “It comes to the point that Drew has to say he’s sick and can’t do it on his own. That was the point we got to. It’s a hard place to be in life.”
Even more than the financial aid, Blansit says the helping hands have been a beacon of hope for Lewis, with the messages left on Facebook and GivingForward.com motivating his recovery.
“Drew… For the past few years I’ve been making a $500 donation to a charity instead of having professionals come and put lights on my house for Christmas. This year, I am sharing this gift with you…” wrote one donor.
Blansit says she and Lewis have a mini-command center in his hospital room with a laptop, iPad and two iPhones set up to monitor the overwhelming response.
“We’re kind of addicted to social media right now,” she said. “We just had so many people who are drawn to Drew and who absolutely think the world of him that we couldn’t keep up with our phones.”
“It really changes his day to have that connectedness and see that he’s changing lives through his process,” Blansit said. “He says that’s his therapy. That’s his means to sometimes manage a day.”