The newlywed couple had never thought that their happy journey of a lifetime will turn into a battle for his life, almost 7,000 miles from home. For Matt and Dani Fontanesi, everything was good and going according to plan. The American couple had just been married in February and was excited for their honeymoon in August. They would leave their home in New Zealand to leave on a coast-to-coast trip of the United States, exploring in Idaho, then gazing in Washington, D.C., New York City, and San Diego. After their travels came to an end, they’d go on a new venture: starting a family. But the couple didn’t expect the unexpected and this is a survival story of a man who was diagnosed with blood cancer during the honeymoon.
Matt caught a little cold before leaving but didn’t consider much of it. (August is winter in New Zealand) after all.
“I was 33, and I ignored it,” says Matt. A drop of soup and a vitamin-packed smoothie, and he’d be good to go.
During the first 14-hour part of their flight, though, Matt’s mild cold expanded into a high fever and severe sweats. By the time they reached Idaho, Matt dragged right into bed, expecting some sleep would sort it out. But as three days passed and Matt stayed in bed, Dani rushed him to the ER for some medicines.
A Man Diagnosed with Cancer during Honeymoon
When the doctor came back with the blood test reports, his cheerful, every-thing-is-ok behavior from the beginning had noticeably changed. “He seemed visibly agitated and pale, and he kept looking down,” says Dani. “I thought, ‘What happened in the next room?’”
But it was Matt the doctor was troubled about. The patient’s white blood cells were desperately low. It was either AIDS or cancer.
With Matt’s immune system weak, even germs that would usually just cause sniffles could be life-threatening, 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.
After three days, the final reports came and it was Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). This type of blood cancer is rare, affecting less than 20,000 new people every year, according to the American Cancer Society.
Nearly 90 percent of Matt’s blood was affected by cancer, so he’d have to endure chemotherapy immediately. There was a problem and the treatment would mean Matt could never have kids. They tried to save some of Matt’s sperm, but he was extremely feeble. Even acknowledging their possibilities of raising a family was gone, they had no option 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 vigorously and be packed in ice. I lost 35 pounds in the first 35 days.”
Chemotherapy evidently was not sufficient, so Matt required a bone marrow transplantation. His sister was the ideal match, and they boarded another plane to San Diego for the surgery. As the Fontanesis was all set to board the flight, Matt asked his father-in-law to push his stretcher around on the road. “It had been two weeks since I’d felt the sun, and it wasn’t sure if I’d ever been 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 cleaned out what was left of Matt’s immune system and got relieved of cancer making space for new white blood cells to develop. “You have a new immune system, but it’s as powerful as a baby’s, so you need to be in isolation,” says Matt. His immune system was too vulnerable to be in the populace, but Matt was strong enough to go “home” to a new residence near the hospital.
The Fontanesis lost everything back in New Zealand. The couple had left their jobs. Matt, as a structural engineer and Dani as a corporate lawyer and gave up their home, their car, and all their possessions. 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 compelling, galvanizing experience.”
In the middle of Matt’s battle against cancer, a blog they’d started was chosen by New Zealand media, and the promotion meant their GoFundMe donations page began filling up fast. They received all $80,000 they needed within about a week, much of it from totally strangers.
The surgery worked better than expected, and year after his diagnosis, Matt was already back at work in San Diego. But he and his wife have never quit thinking about the fantastic hospitality that came their way. “The feeling of being blessed very soon became an affectionate burden. How do we responsibly accept this?” says Matt. “We realized we needed to pay this forward and to be representatives for leukemia.”
The couple has been volunteering with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, helping other families going through similar struggles. “The most emotional 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 taken from them.”
August 24 is usually a bittersweet day when the Fontanesis rejoice Matt’s power 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 gratitude for life and appreciation for everything. Our lives are richer now because of it.”