“We’re going to have to call off the wedding this weekend. Dust got cold feet…and leukemia.”
That was the text KT Riedesel sent to friends when, five days before her planned wedding to then-fiancé Dustin in Dec. 2016, he was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia.
Although Dustin had felt lethargic for a few weeks, he had brushed it off.
“I know in hindsight that I was feeling bad, but at the time I had just turned 31 and was in otherwise good health, and I just assumed that I was maybe coming down with something,” the now 32-year-old tells PEOPLE.
One night Dustin picked at an ingrown hair before going to bed, thinking nothing of it. But when he woke up the next morning, he was sore, and soon he developed a high fever and a pounding headache — and the ingrown hair had swollen up to the size of a spider bite. Still, he again decided to sleep it off.
“When I wake up, I feel much worse. My legs are sore and my whole body is cramping, I can barely walk to the bathroom, and I had a headache that was maybe the worst I’d ever had,” Dustin says. “We’re six days out from the wedding, and KT says, ‘We’re going to the doctor.’ ”
They went to urgent care in their hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, where the doctor immediately sent them to the emergency room. After four hours of testing, Dustin was sent to an oncologist at the University of North Carolina Medical Center.
“From when I thought I was healthy to when I was diagnosed was less than 48 hours,” he says.
At UNC, Dustin was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia, a rare form of the cancer.
“They said that about ten years ago that it was considered one of the most deadly types of leukemia, and one of the most deadly cancers, because you don’t know when it can hit,” KT, 31, says.
“It essentially either kills you really quickly, or you have a high chance of recovery with modern treatment,” Dustin adds. “Your whole bloodstream becomes broken white blood cells.”
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Despite his slight delay in getting to the hospital, doctors were able to stabilize Dustin within three days and start chemotherapy. Though the wedding was mere days away, “Dustin was optimistic that we would still have it,” KT says, with a laugh.
“Much like I thought I wouldn’t need to see the doctor, I was being told on Tuesday that I had cancer, and my wedding was on Saturday. I was like, let’s just see how it plays out,” he jokes. “Maybe I’ll be able to make it.”
Unsurprisingly, the wedding was postponed as Dustin started a 33-day-long hospital stay for his “chemo-lite” treatment, as the couple liked to call it, which consisted of oral chemotherapy pills and infusions of arsenic.
“The treatment for the cancer was basically giving me rat poison, a little at a time, until it kills off all my bad blood cells,” he says.
But the hospital stay was made easier thanks to friends and family.
“We had friends who didn’t change their plane tickets for the wedding, they flew in and they visited us in the hospital and put up decorations,” Dustin says. “Our caterer sent meals to our house. It was pretty amazing. It was scary at the time, but it’s pretty cool that that’s than the lingering memory.”
And the nurses tried getting the Riedesels to wed in the hospital instead, but they declined.
“I was like, ‘I want to be wearing white, I don’t want Dustin to be in a white hospital gown!’ ” KT says. “So we held off.”
After 33 days, Dustin was able to go home and make daily trips to the hospital for treatment in four-week intervals.
“Two out of every eight weeks I would feel pretty good, and the rest of the time was a roller coaster,” he says.
In May 2017, they were able to finally wed during a break in treatments. That September, nine months after his diagnosis, Dustin got the news that he was in remission.
“I think I tricked myself into feeling really confident about everything, and I pushed the worry out of my mind because it was something I couldn’t control,” he says. “But when I got the call and they told me I was in remission, I didn’t see it coming. I started crying and I felt this huge relief, this giant exhale.”
Now Dustin and KT are using their experience to help the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS). Dustin gives speeches about his journey, and the couple organizes races for the non-profit’s fundraising arm, Team in Training. They also use the app Charity Miles to earn money for LLS under his team name, #DustinOffTheCancer.
“We try to do what we can to help,” Dustin says.
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