Wade Lewis isn’t shy about hamming it up in front of the camera. His family’s holiday cards are proof of that. Over the years, Wade, his wife and three children have offered season’s greetings while dressed as overall-wearing farmers, a cadre of preppy tennis players and — perhaps most unlikely — as a tag team of professional wrestlers from the ’80s.
Wade is unapologetic about his quest for celebrating life’s lighter moments. “Life is too short to not enjoy it,” he said.
But in his latest endeavor — filming a documentary about the experiences of living with glioblastoma (GBM) — Wade offers a more serious glimpse into his life behind the smiles. He still wants to make people laugh, but he also wants them to think.
Wade and his neuro-oncologist, Dr. Ekokobe Fonkem, are making the documentary as part of a fundraising campaign to build a brain tumor registry in Africa. By documenting details about GBM in Africa — including the number of cases, geographical differences in treatment and who is diagnosed — they hope to help healthcare professionals learn more about the disease and its impact on the continent.
“We don’t know how many cases are coming from Africa because nothing has been documented. There’s nothing collective in Africa,” said Dr. Fonkem, who was born in Cameroon and is a co-founder of the Society for Neuro-Oncology Sub-Saharan Africa, an organization working to improve outcomes for brain tumor patients. “It’s important to develop this kind of registry to collect data and do comparative analyses to see if the way we treat brain cancer might be different based on geographical regions.”
Doctors and patients usually don’t tag-team on projects, but Wade and Dr. Fonkem say their connection goes beyond GBM. Their birthdays fall in the same month and year. Both have a penchant for positivity and helping others. Most importantly, they forged a bond soon after Wade suffered a grand mal seizure in his hotel room during a weekend trip out of town with his wife, Miranda.
It was a frightening time, but Wade says he will always be grateful for that trip. He wound up at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, where Dr. Fonkem was the director of neuro-oncology. After undergoing surgery to remove what they suspected was a low-grade tumor, Wade learned it was actually a grade 4 GBM. The news was devastating, especially because he had no symptoms. However, Wade was determined to find a spark of joy.
He found it with Dr. Fonkem, part of the team overseeing his care. Dr. Fonkem told him about a white paper he had written about the power of positivity. Wade shared his long-held dream of serving others in ministry. The more they talked, the more Wade started to wonder if there was a way to use his experience and faith to help others.
“From the first time I met Dr. Fonkem, I knew how much he wants to try and find a cure for this disease with all his heart. It’s not about money or prestige,” Wade said. “So when he told me his life’s goal is to build a brain tumor registry in Africa, I said, ‘I’m going to be retired. I’m going to have time on my hands. I’m in.’”
Wade retired as vice president for a global facilities maintenance company, but he hasn’t stopped collaborating with his international network. He’s still in contact with former employees and industry colleagues to help raise $250,000 to get the registry off the ground. On his first call, he secured $10,000 to fund the documentary. He’s already planning an event in the Netherlands and hopes to end his fundraising trip with a visit to Africa with Dr. Fonkem. Together, they’re setting up a website to help others learn more about their project.
“I’m not working anymore, but I am working on making this happen,” said Wade, who has filmed his doctor appointments and his church activities for the documentary. “I was blessed to be in this position where I have time to do this and use the connections I have. I feel like I’m prepared for this part of my journey.”
Dr. Fonkem expects it will take a few months to a year to get the registry started once the funding is in place. Until then, he plans to match Wade’s energy and enthusiasm for making a difference in the world.
“Wade is more to me than just a patient,” Dr. Fonkem said. “He is also my friend.”
The health status of patients featured reflects their condition at the time the story was written and photographs were taken and may have changed over time.