Zully O’Conner Suarez-Hall thought her wedding would be in Las Vegas.
She had always wanted to experience the casinos, and after seeing the wedding scene from “The Hangover” movie, she figured it’d be a great way to “tackle two birds with one stone.”
So when she and her now-husband, Ray Hall, fell in love — the two met while playing pool at Brody’s Bar and Grill on Lady’s Island — they began planning.
Knowing the price tag on a Vegas trip, the couple wanted to save enough money to do it right.
On Feb. 12, 2019, the Halls went to the UPS store next to Game Stop in Beaufort and had an employee notarize their wedding certificate. Their goal was to celebrate their two-year anniversary in Sin City.
But that dream was halted after a year of doctor visits and an eventual cancer diagnosis, resulting in surgery scheduled for Wednesday in Charleston.
A year of unknown
O’Conner Suarez-Hall, a mother of three and now stepmother to two, has lived in Beaufort for years. The 34-year-old Puerto Rican came to Beaufort by way of North Chicago, Illinois, where much of her family still lives. At one point during her 12 years on active duty in the U.S. Marines, she was stationed in Beaufort, where she grew to appreciate the much warmer weather.
O’Conner Suarez-Hall stays busy tending to family, doing periodic volunteer work, and staying involved with the local chapters of Disabled American Veterans, Montford Point Marines, the VFW.
She’s vibrant. Her bright smile radiates welcome. She is a friend to many.
But about a year ago, she started noticing changes in her body and mind.
She was constantly tired but barely able to sleep.
She couldn’t stay focused long enough to cook dinner.
Some days she felt really, really sick.
She said doctors told her it was nothing more than side effects of the medication she was on — or that she wasn’t getting enough vitamins.
“I was disappointed for a long time, because every time I said I wasn’t feeling well, the results would say that nothing was wrong with me,” she said. “It was confusing, and it got to a point where I never wanted to complain about it anymore.”
Then on Sept. 2, her youngest daughter’s birthday, she got the news.
She was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, a form of breast cancer.
“It was not the best news, but it did make me feel like I finally knew something.”
Everything began moving in a mad rush, with doctors scheduling her for a double mastectomy five weeks later.
She knew there was one thing she wanted to do before surgery.
On Saturday, four days before her surgery, the Halls, some close friends and family did the next-best thing to Vegas: The went to Beaufort’s Waterfront Park.
There was no bouquet toss, garter toss, toast or first dance.
There was, however, a bride in a white dress with the man she loves.
O’Conner Suarez-Hall described the celebration as a “photo shoot” rather than a ceremony.
She said the couple didn’t want to spend a lot of money on a full wedding because they needed to save it for medical-related expenses such as hotel costs for Ray during her surgery and recovery. The VA fully compensates O’Conner Suarez-Hall because she is a 100% disabled veteran.
The surgery is Wednesday at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston.
So the gathering at Beaufort’s waterfront was a beautiful second choice.
“When weddings are over,” she said, “all you have is the photos, so who’s going to know you didn’t have the ceremony?”
These photos are one of her last opportunities to document the way she is now.
“I wanted to be able see myself in these photos as the person I know myself to be, before surgery,” she said, “and with so many unknowns, if we push it off, it may never happen.”
O’Conner Suarez-Hall was in long, strapless white dress that she’d found for less than $50 at a local thrift store. It had intricate beading throughout the top that flowed into the bottom and showed off her arm and shoulder tattoos, one of which is the USMC seal.
For the finishing touch, she and one of her close friends tied a light pink ribbon around the waist that said “cancer fighter.”
Ray wore a charcoal suit with a light pink tie and pink breast cancer awareness ribbon pinned above his heart.
Everyone else also wore their best pink.
One of the couple’s longtime friends, Clarissa Wills, helped with decorations, the bouquet and other details. She even surprised them with a wedding cake.
Wills was working at Beauty Marks Tattoos when O’Conner Suarez-Hall became her client. They’ve been friends ever since. She helped with the wedding because “it’s what (Zully) would have done for anyone. That’s the kind of person she is.”
O’Conner Suarez-Hall is always helping others, she said. It was time to reciprocate.
She’d met photographer Monique Delatour at a recent Black Lives Matter rally, and Delatour agreed to document the event. As Delatour snapped photos, the group shared laughs and smiles.
And after everything was over, O’Conner Suarez-Hall ran out barefoot to dance in the rain.
Fighter to survivor
As she’s begun her journey fighting cancer, O’Conner Suarez-Hall has experienced all the emotions.
At first she was shocked that, at 34, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Then she became angry. “Why me?”
She said she’s still working to find acceptance, but she wants to use her experience to educate others.
“We need to acknowledge that breast cancer happens at any age,” she said. “Doctors recommend beginning mammograms at 40, and if I had not gone through that whole process,” if I’d given up ”when I was told there was nothing wrong with me, I would be at Stage 4 cancer by 40, no doubt.”
She said she had noticed a lump in her breast, but not until right before she was diagnosed.
Despite experiencing early warning signs, such as itchiness, pain and some swelling, she was unaware those could be symptoms of something bigger and pushed it off in her mind, thinking: “Maybe I did too many pull-ups.”
“Everyone needs to educate themselves, even if there’s little to no chance of them becoming a breast cancer patient,” she said. “We don’t know who around us could be tackled with it, and being their support system is important because this can shatter people’s hopes and dreams.”
O’Conner Suarez-Hall said she’s been blessed with an amazing support system, and they have learned alongside her.
And now, with the wedding behind her and surgery on Wednesday, O’Conner Suarez-Hall is determined to “go from breast cancer patient to breast cancer survivor.”