Couple Marry At Duke Five Days After Cancer Diagnosis

October 26, 2018
By: Karen E. Butler, Director of Communications

"I don't know if any other way would have been as special," said Ben Stamper, who married at Duke five days after being diagnosed with leukemia.In J.K. Rowling’s 1999 Harry Potter novel, “Prisoner of Azkaban,” professor Albus Dumbledore foresees the tough times ahead and reminds the inhabitants of the castle to stay hopeful and optimistic. “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light,” he instructs them.

For Ben Stamper, 31, a devoted fan of the Harry Potter fantasy series, Dumbledore’s words could not have rung truer or held more meaning one somber night in early October. Here he was, lying in a Duke University Hospital bed on the ninth floor, his longtime girlfriend, Carly Coco, 26, lying close beside him — her tears falling down to meet his own. Stamper had learned he was in a fight for his life.

Just hours before, his hematologic malignancies specialist, Louis Diehl, MD, confirmed he had leukemia — a cancer most often of white blood cells that begin to rapidly increase, unable to fight infection in the same way normal white cells can.

The couple’s reality felt as dark and grim as any scenario penned between the pages of their beloved fictional novels.

As Stamper and Coco considered their uncertain future, it suddenly occurred to them, as if dawn had broken, that marriage was the sure journey forward.

“Honestly the idea of a wedding was a small blip on my mind — until that very moment of clarity,” shared Coco, who admitted initially the inclination was to look at survival rates, which almost had them “latch” on to the worst possible outcomes.

Stamper and Coco, who’d been together for five years, knew that someday they’d marry. Even though over the years family and friends urged them to make it “official,” the couple hadn’t seen the rush.

Stamper, who had relocated to Raleigh, North Carolina, from his hometown of Roanoke, Virginia, was busy kick-starting a new career in software sales, and as soon as Coco graduated with her bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she enrolled in a master’s degree program at Duke University. “After school,” they concurred.

The couple was engaged the night Stamper was diagnosed. A wedding? The sooner the better, they agreed. Stamper and Coco thought they’d put together a quick, very small affair just to make it legal.

“It seemed as though everything came into focus,” said Stamper, whose blood counts were so low he had already undergone six blood transfusions the two days preceding his diagnosis. “In that moment, I realized there really was no good reason to wait anymore.”

Good News Travels Fast

The couple asked Stamper’s nurse, Rachel Camp, RN, if it would be possible to marry on-site even while Stamper was being treated on an inpatient basis. His treatment requires two intensive forms of chemotherapy over a period of four to six weeks, which would mean, because of serious side effects, Stamper would have to remain in the hospital for the duration of his treatment.

Camp contacted Annette Olsen, a senior clinical administrative chaplain at Duke, who booked a hospital chapel. Stamper’s friends insisted on helping too. Friends Mike and Jessy Burritt immediately visited a local jeweler, texting photos of diamond rings to the newly engaged couple. Coco texted back her pick and the Burritts made the purchase on Stamper’s behalf.

Unbeknownst to Stamper and Coco, their friend Noelle Faria reached out to local businesses, sharing with owners and managers the couple’s plans and asking for support. In all, with the help of a pro bono wedding planner, Noelle was able to secure the services of a photographer, a videographer, two bakeries, a florist and a hair and makeup artist. Meanwhile Noelle’s husband, Miguel, who upon hearing the good news, had gone online to become legally ordained to officiate the wedding. Mike Burritts quickly organized a bachelor party, which given the circumstances, wound up being a relaxed evening in Stamper’s hospital room eating pizza and watching football.

Five days after their engagement, on Sunday, Oct. 14, Stamper and Coco said their “I Dos” – Coco was dressed in a black robe representing one of the Harry Potter Houses of Hogwarts, Hufflepuff — whose values are patience, loyalty, justice and hard work. Stamper also wore a black robe, his representing the House of Slytherin, which holds to resourcefulness, cunning and leadership as its core values. What they imagined would be a small wedding expanded to fill a candle-lit chapel to near capacity. Family and friends came from near and far – many, also in Harry Potter attire.

“I don’t know if a wedding any other way would be as special,” said Stamper, who in the few days leading up to the wedding had been extremely weak and unwell. “I don’t know if I would change anything. I felt so loved. It exceeded anything I could have imagined or have hoped for.” Stamper said that up until his diagnosis he was prone to worry about tomorrow. Cancer has changed all that.

“Today, I’m living in the here and now,” he shared. “I just want to spend my time focused on family and friends. I’m not going to concern myself anymore with trivial things like the 2,000-square-foot house I should be on-track to purchase in three years.”

The newlyweds, though still facing a formidable battle, continue to bask in the warm expressions of love they experienced on their wedding day.

“I think our wedding is a testimony to how special a person Ben is,” said his bride, brimming with pride for the man she loves. “He makes friends and keeps them. He would do anything for all of them. That being said, he has an amazing gift of being able to surround himself with equally generous and wonderful individuals, like his best friends, Miguel and Noelle, the masterminds of this crazy, amazing, meaningful event. Because of them, and many others, on my wedding day I went from, ‘This isn’t fair’ to asking ‘How did we get so lucky to be surrounded by such support and love?’”

Ben and Carly extend their sincerest thanks to the many friends who came together to make their wedding day the most memorable ever. The also extend their deep gratitude to Duke and the gracious businesses that came along side to create and capture their wedding day: BASH events :: Danielle Riley Photography  Gold + Sage Photography :: Paisley and Pearl Events :: Bowerbird Flowers :: Wicked Sweet Cakes :: Nothing Bundt Cakes :: Greenhouse Picker Sisters

Step out with Team Duke Cancer Center Durham, Team Duke Cancer Center Raleigh and our other partnering teams for Light The Night on Saturday, Nov. 3, at Booth Amphitheater in Cary!