Here's how they used humor to cope—and why finally getting married turned out better than ever.

Six days before they were supposed to get married in 2016, Dustin Riedesel and Katie Winders found themselves on the way to the hospital.

“In hindsight, I could see something had been wrong for a couple of weeks,” says Dustin, 32. He’d been having trouble catching his breath while playing basketball. His group workouts at the gym left him more tired than usual. A pesky canker-like sore in his mouth just wouldn’t heal.

But it was an ingrown hair of all things that finally pushed him to seek medical attention. “I didn’t really think much about it, and I picked it,” he says. To his surprise, Dustin awoke that Sunday morning in December with a sore at the spot of the ingrown hair that now looked like a spider bite. He then quickly spiked a fever.

“I did the thing many young men do: I said, ‘I don’t need the doctor, I’ll sleep it off,’” Dustin recalls now. But he started feeling worse. He could barely walk to the bathroom due to severe fatigue and pain in his legs. He had a pounding headache. When Katie, 31, returned to their Raleigh, North Carolina home after running errands, she wouldn’t listen to any more excuses. “We gotta go!” Dustin remembers her saying about heading to an urgent-care facility, stat.

The urgent-care doctors sent the couple straight to the emergency room instead, explaining brusquely that they needed to get an oncologist involved. “When I heard the O word, I immediately started panicking,” Katie says. She hid tears as Dustin was wheeled to an ambulance. “It was when we were about to get into an ambulance that for the first time I felt truly scared and uncertain.”

Hours of tests and an overnight stay later, specialists had determined that Dustin actually had leukemia. By the end of Monday, they had pinpointed it as a specific type called acute promyelocytic leukemia, or APL. APL is a rare subtype of leukemia that causes the bone marrow cells which produce blood cells to stop developing and functioning normally, according to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS).

Thanks to advances in treatment, APL is considered “the most curable form of adult leukemia,” according to the LLS. But because it can cause bleeding, it can be life-threatening before it’s diagnosed and treated. “APL basically kills you in the first five days—or you have a very high chance of recovery,” Dustin says.

Credit: Dustin and Katie Riedesel

By Tuesday, reality was starting to sink in; the wedding was just days away, and “we didn’t know when we’d get out of the ICU,” Katie says. Despite Dustin’s heavily medicated denial—“Maybe we don’t need to, maybe I’ll feel better in a few days!”—she knew she had to call the wedding off. She sent a text (now legendary among friends and family) to a core group of the wedding party who knew what was going on with Dustin’s health. “Dust got cold feet… and leukemia.” (“It’s a tough combo,” he says today with a laugh.)

Vendors jumped into action to postpone plans and help however they could, Katie recalls. Wedding guests who were scheduled to travel to Raleigh for the big day kept their plane tickets and visited the couple in the ICU. On Saturday, which would have been their wedding day, Katie and Dustin had something to celebrate anyway: Dustin had stabilized and was ready to be moved out of the ICU.

“Moving to the oncology ward meant we were through the worst part,” he says. “By some dumb luck, they were wheeling me down the hallway at the exact same time Katie would have been walking down the aisle at our wedding. It almost felt just as awesome.”

Ultimately, Dustin would spend 33 days in the hospital. Treatment lasted eight months, followed by a final bone marrow biopsy. He has blood tests done every three months to make sure he’s still healthy. And today marks his one-year anniversary of being leukemia-free.

On May 7, 2017, Katie and Dustin finally got married. Vendors they had lined up the first time around provided services free of additional charges; almost the exact same number of guests RSVPed. The couple didn't stress about guests not wanting the chicken entrée, or how mortified they’d be if the DJ actually played the Electric Slide, Katie says. “Everyone knew why we were there. They knew we weren’t just celebrating that one day, but the next 50 years—the fact that we still had the next 50 years.”

"Weddings a lot of times become a celebration of that day. You're nervous, you want it to go well—it almost overshadows the big why of the event. We were unique in that we had this celebration of life. You’re like, 'What could possibly go wrong? We’ve already had the worst!'" Dustin adds.

After the “cold feet” text, it was only fitting to update the invitations similarly. “I took a Sharpie to the original invitation,” Katie says. They sent a photo of the updated invite and emailed it to wedding guests with the subject line “Save the date… again.”

Credit: Dustin and Katie Riedesel

Humor and joy had always been a part of their relationship, Dustin says, but the Riedesels credit their nurses for always helping them make the best of their bad days. “Everybody thinks the cancer is what changes your perspective on life, the brush with death, but that’s not what it is,” Dustin says. “It’s the kindness of others, their generosity.”

Katie learned to lean on others as she assumed her role as caregiver. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” she says. “One of the things people told me throughout was to make sure I was sleeping, to make sure I was eating.” She took notes during appointments, asked questions of doctors, and advocated on Dustin’s behalf when she needed to. “Just being able to say, ‘I want to stay with Dustin when he gets this test, which means I can’t do A, B, and C, can you help?’ was the most important,” she says.

But they're grateful for the kindness of strangers they'll never meet, too—the people who, decades ago, participated in research that ultimately led to Dustin’s successful treatment. “Somebody who volunteered for a study helped people without ever even knowing us,” Katie says. “Anybody who can find something to funnel their kindness into, that’s the big takeaway,” Dustin adds.

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They’re certainly doing their part. In addition to speaking at LLS events, they’re raising money for the Society through running. “I’m in the best shape since I was, I don’t know, 24?” Dustin says. Using a team-based charity app, they’ve recruited friends and family to log miles that earn them donations from corporate sponsors. “Once I started running, I kinda loved it! I felt better, I was losing weight, I had more energy,” Dustin says. “I’m about 35 pounds lighter than before I got diagnosed, in a good way!”

Credit: Kasey Smith Creative

Dustin is also an advocate for going to see the doctor now. “If Katie hadn’t been there to make me go, I was going to try to sleep off leukemia,” he says with a laugh. “If there’s any question about if you need a doctor, you definitely do. Young men especially need to know that.”