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Jackie Alston at the finish line of a recent 5K.

When a significant other is diagnosed with cancer, it can be just as hard on the loved one as it is on the patient. They often attend doctor’s appointments, infusion sessions and take on caregiver roles while at home. One Cary, North Carolina, couple, however, found themselves experiencing both roles when they were each diagnosed with cancer years apart.

Stephen and Jackie Alston were planning to get married in 2016 when Jackie Alston, 58, got an annual physical that wasn’t so routine. At the time, the single mom of two was showing no symptoms, but her platelet counts were unusually low and kept dropping. Her doctor ordered a bone marrow biopsy, and shared the results with UNC Lineberger’s Joshua Zeidner, MD, at the North Carolina Cancer Hospital, the clinical home of UNC Lineberger.

“He called me and said ‘I have all the results, but something just isn’t lining up.’ I thought it was a bad dream,” she said. Another biopsy revealed Jackie Alston had leukemia, something that shocked her to her core.

“How do I go from prepping for a half marathon, running a 5K, and then having leukemia?”

Interrupted plans, undeterred commitment

Jackie Alston’s diagnosis had thrown their family and their wedding plans into disarray. Their wedding was set for September 2016, but Zeidner told her she’d be recovering from her bone marrow transplant then. She had plans for the year that included graduations and dropping a child off at college on top of her nuptials.

“It was tough because we’d just gotten engaged,” she said. “I said ‘I’m OK if you want to call this off, because this is not what you signed up for,’ ” she said.

The Alstons at the sweetheart table at their wedding
Jackie and Stephen Alston got married while dealing with Jackie’s cancer diagnosis.

But Stephen Alston, 64, was all in. He eagerly accepted his role as a caregiver and soon-to-be groom, and the pair were married in June, 2016, ditching their September plans and making it work so family members and friends could attend both Jackie’s daughter’s high school graduation and their wedding.

“I was her caregiver,” Stephen Alston said. “When she got through it all, it was an adjustment for me to stop being a caregiver and be a husband.”

But that changed in 2019, when Stephen Alston became the patient and Jackie Alston took on caregiver responsibilities. Stephen was having trouble swallowing, and his physician referred him to the N.C. Cancer Hospital. After blood work and an examination, he was diagnosed with oral cancer and was treated with chemotherapy and radiation, which took a toll on his body.

“It wasn’t a walk in the park,” he said. “I lost 30 pounds and was close to getting a feeding tube.”

‘The best possible solution’

But Stephen Alston’s care team had other ideas. Working with UNC Lineberger’s Bhisham Chera, MD, and Shetal Patel, MD, Alston was enrolled in Chera’s de-intensification clinical trial, something Stephen Alston said was the right decision for him.

“I feel like I stumbled into the best possible solution,” he said. “If I had to do standard of care, I’d have had a feeding tube. [Chera] helped me. The clinical trial reduced the chemo and radiation, duration and intensity for all that. I was really grateful that it turned out the way it did.”

The Alstons both count their blessings daily, and they said their faith helps them keep them motivated and an active lifestyle keeps them going.

“My faith is important,” Jackie Alston said. “I can’t begin to imagine going through this without faith. I don’t know how people go through times like this without prayers to God. I had too much to live for. I wanted to see my grandkids, and I was embarking on a new life with Steve. I was not giving up. There was fight in me.”

“Our faith was a stronghold,” Stephen Alston said. “We had support from our friends from church. You shouldn’t be bashful to take people up on offers to help. It blessed us to allow them to do that.”

The couple stay active, too, focusing on clean eating and keeping their bodies in motion, something they did before their cancer but now find makes a bigger difference in their lives.

“We’re still active, and when [your care team] encourages you to get out of the bed and do something, we took that to heart,” Stephen Alston said.

Stephen Alston is still doing follow-up appointments, and he has been under active surveillance for prostate cancer since 2005. Jackie had an appointment with UNC Lineberger’s Katarzyna Jamieson, MD, and has had no recurrence of disease.

The Alstons are grateful to each other for taking on caregiver roles and their care teams at the N.C. Cancer Hospital for helping them get healthy again.

“Both of us connected at a personal level with our caregivers, our nurses, our radiology techs. We’d have conversations with them, and it added a personal touch,” Stephen Alston said. “We are grateful for the entire team at the N.C. Cancer Hospital, especially the people in the trenches.”

Watch Stephen Alston celebrate the completion of chemotherapy treatment by ringing the gong at the N.C. Cancer Hospital.

Ringing the gong has become a joyous tradition at the hospital to signal the milestone.