For Matt and Dani Fontanesi, everything was going according to plan. The American newlyweds had just been married in February and were ramping up for their honeymoon that August. They would leave their home in New Zealand to embark on a coast-to-coast tour of United States, hiking in Idaho, then sightseeing in Washington, D.C., New York City, and San Diego. After their travels wrapped up, they’d work on a new adventure: starting a family.
Matt developed a bit of a cold before leaving but didn’t think much of it—August is winter in New Zealand, after all. “I was 33, and I ignored it,” says Matt. A bit of soup and a vitamin-packed smoothie, and he’d be good to go.
During the first 14-hour leg of their flight, though, Matt’s simple cold developed into a high fever and intense sweats. By the time they got to Idaho, Matt crawled straight into bed, hoping some rest would sort him out. But as three days passed and Matt stayed in bed, Dani dragged him to the ER for some antibiotics.
When the doctor came back with the blood test results, his lighthearted, let’s-get-you-better attitude from earlier had noticeably changed. “He looked visibly shaken and ashen, and he kept looking down,” says Dani. “I thought, ‘What happened in the next room?’”
But it was Matt the doctor was worried about. The patient’s white blood cells were dangerously low. It was either AIDS or cancer.
With Matt’s immune system down, even germs that would normally just cause sniffles could be deadly, so he was put into isolation at the hospital. “We couldn’t even have the window open because even pollen from flowers could come in and kill him,” says Dani.
Three days later, the diagnosis came: acute myeloid leukemia. The blood cancer is rare, affecting less than 20,000 new people every year, according to the American Cancer Society. Make sure you know these 16 silent symptoms of leukemia.
About 90 percent of Matt’s blood was cancerous, so he’d have to start chemotherapy right away. There was a catch—treatment would mean Matt could never have kids. They tried to preserve some of Matt’s sperm, but he was too sick. Even knowing their chances of starting a family were gone, they had no choice but to proceed.
“They said it would get worse before it gets better. It got a lot worse,” says Matt. “Fevers of 105 to 107 every night. I’d shake violently and be packed in ice. I lost 35 pounds in the first 35 days.”
Chemotherapy clearly was not enough, so Matt needed a bone marrow transplant. His sister was the perfect match, and they boarded another plane to San Diego for the treatment. As the Fontanesis got ready to board the flight, Matt asked his father-in-law to push his gurney around on the tarmac. “It had been two weeks since I’d felt the sun, and it wasn’t clear if I’d ever be out of the hospital again,” says Matt. “It was this moment of ‘grab your freedom while you can.’”
At UC San Diego Health, the bone marrow transplant wiped out what was left of Matt’s immune system—and got rid of the cancer—making way for new white blood cells to repopulate. “You have a new immune system, but it’s as effective as a baby’s, so you need to be in isolation,” says Matt. His immune system was too weak to be in public, but Matt was strong enough to go “home” to a new apartment near the hospital.
The Fontanesis lost everything back in New Zealand. The couple had quit their jobs—Matt as a structural engineer and Dani as a corporate lawyer—and gave up their home, their car, and all their belongings. All they had left were two weeks’ worth of clothes they packed. “In that first year [of marriage], we put every single word of our vows to the test,” says Matt. “It was such a powerful, galvanizing experience.”
In the middle of Matt’s fight against cancer, a blog they’d started was picked up by New Zealand media, and the publicity meant their GoFundMe donations page started filling up—fast. They received all $80,000 they needed within about a week, much of it from complete strangers.
The treatment went better than expected, and year after his diagnosis, Matt was already back at work in San Diego. But he and his wife have never stopped thinking about the unprecedented generosity that came their way. “The feeling of being blessed very quickly became an emotional burden. How do we responsibly accept this?” says Matt. “We recognized we needed to pay this forward and to be ambassadors for leukemia.”
The two have been volunteering with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, supporting other families going through similar struggles. “The most impactful moment is when you see these families pulling behind them a little red wagon with a picture of the child they lost to blood cancer,” says Matt, who is still cancer-free. “It’s so sad for us, wanting to start a family and to see someone who also had that stolen from them.”
August 24 is normally a bittersweet day when the Fontanesis celebrate Matt’s strength on the anniversary of his diagnosis. But this year, the day brought a miracle: Dani found out she was pregnant. The couples’ fertility treatments had paid off, and they’re expecting a baby boy.
“It literally came full circle,” says Dani. “We have a new appreciation for life and a gratitude for everything. Our lives are richer now because of it.”
Next, check out these inspiring quotes from cancer survivors.