Less than a week before their wedding, Dustin Riedesel and his fiancée Katie were debating whether they should cancel.
Riedesel had just been diagnosed at UNC Medical Center with a rare form of blood cancer called acute promyelocytic leukemia. At first, he told his fiancée that maybe they should see how he felt at the end of the week before canceling.
“Which now seems absurd, but I didn’t know what I was dealing with,” Riedesel said. “I didn’t taste fresh air again for 33 days.”
When they learned about the diagnosis and intensive treatment plan, they canceled the wedding, which had been scheduled for Dec. 3, 2016. To keep it good-natured, his fiancée sent out a text to the bridal party saying “just to let everybody know, Dust got cold feet … and leukemia.”
Friends and family kept their plane tickets in order to visit him in the hospital, and the wedding vendors agreed to reschedule for a later date.
Now in total remission, Riedesel said his experience with cancer influenced his perspective on marriage. He saw the loving and giving nature of his wife in full bloom, and how she embodied the commitment they were going to make. It gave him certainty she was the person he wanted to spend the rest of his life with.
“The joke I tell people is: don’t waste your money on premarital counseling, get premarital cancer,” he said. “It’s the way to go if you want to be sure about the person you’re marrying.”
From diagnosis, treatment to ‘the best possible news’
About eight days before the wedding, Riedesel scratched an ingrown hair on his leg. Overnight, it turned into a sore spot that resembled a spider bite, and within a few hours, it developed into a rash, a fever and flu-like illness with muscle cramps and pain. He said he probably would have stayed on the couch until he felt better, but his then-fiancée forced him to go to urgent care, where he was immediately sent to the emergency room. After testing, he was rushed to the UNC Medical Center, where, by dumb luck, two of his nurses were named Grace and Faith.
“If it wasn’t for Katie, I do think I would have just tried to sleep off leukemia,” he said.
He was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia, a rare subtype of acute myeloid leukemia, in which immature blood cells accumulate, leading to a deficiency of red and white blood cells and platelets. Initial signs and symptoms include fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath and symptoms from blood clotting problems. There were early warning signs, Riedesel said, recalling that he had recently felt uncharacteristically exhausted after a recreational basketball game.
Early treatment for acute promyelocytic leukemia is important, said UNC Lineberger’s Catherine C. Coombs, MD, assistant professor in the UNC School of Medicine Division of Hematology/Oncology, as patients can experience complications with bleeding and blood clotting. Initial treatment involves treatments that allow cancerous blood cells to mature into regular blood cells.
“This type of leukemia is characterized by a high rate of mortality in the first month after diagnosis, but the good news is, after they make it through the first month, the survival rate is high,” Coombs said.
Riedesel started treatment almost immediately. His fiancée was by his side each night. On the date and time they were scheduled to be walking down the aisle, he was transferring from intensive care unit to the fourth floor of the N.C. Cancer Hospital. The transfer was “the best possible news,” he said.
At the end of his hospitalization, a bone marrow biopsy showed he had a complete remission, and he proceeded onto a regular consolidation treatment plan to completely eradicate any small traces of the leukemia that remained, and ensure a high cure rate. This September marked the one-year anniversary of when a bone marrow biopsy showed he was in complete remission, with no traces of leukemia left, although he still returns for testing.
‘A celebration of our life’
Riedesel said he and his wife Katie are grateful for the expertise of the doctors at the N.C. Cancer Hospital, which is “all the difference between life and death.” But in particular, they’re thankful for the nurses and staff and their dedication to their patients. That has translated into the way they want to see their marriage going forward.
“You really appreciate the generosity of spirit in other people – the people who are really kind, selfless with their time – it makes you want to give more,” he said. “That was something we talked about in the way we want to treat each other in the marriage going forward.”
Riedesel said he was contacted by a woman who was on one of the clinical trials for the treatment he received, and it demonstrated the need to give back for support research. The treatment that he received became standard after clinical trial results were published in 2013, Coombs said.
“This cancer was uniformly fatal at one time, and the standard treatment we have now is based on a study published five years ago,” Coombs said. “It’s amazing that advances are continually made to improve the cure rate with lower overall toxicity for patients.”
Riedesel and his wife Katie are now involved in fundraising for cancer research, and he tries to encourage people to donate blood plasma. In addition to his day job, he is a writer who has told the story of his own cancer journey on his blog, and he also finished a novel during his hospitalization, which he sells to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
And they were able to reschedule their wedding to a break in treatment in May 2017, on a day when they had a blue sky and 70-degree weather. Since their wedding had already come around once, Riedesel said he could care less about the flatware, the food, and the bouquets.
“It wasn’t so much a celebration of the day, but a celebration of our life – not just the past – but the future we could now build together,” he said.