This love story is straight out of a Nicholas Sparks or John Green tear-jerker.
Alexis Gould Stafford, 21, was undergoing chemotherapy at a children’s hospital when she met her future husband, Ricky Stafford, 23, who was in remission and there for a check-up.
“Our story is similar to ‘The Fault in Our Stars,'” Alexis told Kennedy News, comparing their courtship to the 2014 movie about a teenage couple who meet and fall in love in a cancer support group. “But it’s not a very happy movie — when I think back on my life and on our story — it’s a happy story and that’s the difference.”
The couple met at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2016, after Alexis, then 15, heard music blasting from then 17-year-old Ricky’s room.
“I thought it was going to be a little boy but Ricky was tall with dark thick hair — he was in remission at the time. He came out and started dancing and introducing himself and we became friends right away,” Alexis said.
Alexis had been diagnosed with stage four neuroblastoma — cancer of the nerves — in September 2015 and spent much of the next 17 months as an in-patient, enduring six rounds of intense chemo, four major surgeries, two stem cell transplants and countless other treatments.
Ricky had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia — cancer affecting white blood cells — in February 2014 and underwent five months of intense chemo followed by two years of oral chemo.
“I was feeling alone because most of the kids at the hospital were young, so to have somebody who was around my age and knew what I was going through just made everything so much easier,” Alexis said.
The teens quickly became best friends as they bonded over their illness and being two of the oldest kids in the hospital.
The two continued their friendship as Ricky visited Alexis in the hospital while she underwent treatment over the next year.
“As a teenage kid, sometimes you prioritize physical traits but in that situation, Lexi was bald and really small and skinny and didn’t have any eyelashes or anything like that. But what drew me to her was just her smile and the spirit that accommodated her — she just has a way of making people feel loved without even saying anything,” Ricky shared.
“I was very aware she was in the middle of something very heavy, having just gone through cancer myself not too long before.”
Unfortunately, Ricky’s health deteriorated and his cancer returned the next year while he was in Boston, Massachusetts, on a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in April 2017.
Alexis wanted to support her best friend as he had done for her and began flying to Boston to be with him. That’s when the two realized their true feelings for one another and fell in love.
“It made all the difference in the world to have her there through my cancer journey,” Ricky said.
“Having someone there who you love and loves you is kind of essential when you’re going through trials in life. It makes you want to fight harder but it also makes the journey easier because you’re not enduring the pain by yourself, you’re sharing some of that weight.”
Wanting to take advantage of every bit of life they had left, Ricky proposed to Alexis just two months into dating. He popped the question on the anniversary of his leukemia diagnosis, Feb. 24, 2018.
Despite his ongoing battle with cancer, the couple was married on Sept. 15 of that year — the anniversary of the day Alexis was diagnosed with cancer — at 18 and 19 years old.
“I think I was a little bit selfish asking her to marry me at that moment because I had just been diagnosed with cancer again and I didn’t have a job or a game plan. But I asked her to marry me because I needed someone who understood what I was going through to be there for me because I was scared,” Ricky said of the decision.
“A lot of people would run from a situation like that but Lexi didn’t run and I’m so grateful for that.”
Alexis was not expecting the proposal but was happy to accept and begin her life with Ricky. “We knew that life isn’t always promised and we decided to spend what time we have together,” Alexis said.
“He surprised me and proposed on the day of the anniversary of when he was diagnosed and then we got married on my diagnosis day — we took the hard dates and made them a reason to smile,” she added.
The couple began their engagement during Ricky’s relapse, but he was able to finish his intense chemo treatment just two months before they tied the knot. He continued to take oral steroids for another two years and finally went into remission in January 2020.
But the Stafford’s struggles weren’t over yet. Several months after Ricky began remission, Alexis’ health took another turn for the worse that December. She began to bleed internally while having biopsies done to test for a potential tumor, and by January 2021 she was in hospice.
Fortunately after three months, with the consistent support of her best friend-turned-husband, Alexis beat the odds yet again, recovering enough to be discharged.
“I’m five years cancer-free now and Ricky is technically in remission but in a couple of years he’ll be confirmed cancer-free as well,” she said.
“Now we’re just focusing on spending whatever time we have together and making the most out of life.”