For Leah Debono, the altar at her wedding ceremony was something of a finish line. After years of fighting cancer, she had received the all-clear from her doctors. So now she could live happily – and healthily – ever after.
But just months after that beautiful day, all of her smiles would be gone. Instead, she would be back in the hospital. She had collapsed, and no one could believe the reason why when they found out that she was once again fighting for her life.
Of course, Leah’s story had happy beginnings. She met Ben Debono, a tradesman from New South Wales, Australia, and he knew instantly that she was the one. According to Ben, though, she took longer to fall for him. “I probably liked her way more than she liked me for six months,” he told 60 Minutes Australia.
But Leah’s heart eventually started to soften, especially after Ben smartened up his act. “I remember her saying her biggest problem was … the way I dressed,” he explained. “So once she could get me tidied up and looking the way she wanted to, it went from there.”
Soon, the couple fell head over heels in love, enjoying every minute of their time together. “We just laugh, we’re always laughing,” Ben said. “That was how I got her, I could make her laugh. That’s how I charmed her. It wasn’t all those rugged good looks.”
Even Leah’s mom, Heather, could see what a great match Leah and Ben were. “They’re meant to be with each other,” Heather said. However, knowing now that things wouldn’t be that simple for them, she could barely hold back tears when she added, “All their hopes and dreams just came to an end.”
It all started in 2012 – before she met Ben – when Leah found an irregular mole on her arm. Her doctors examined the bump and gave her a good prognosis. They informed her that nothing was wrong with the mysterious growth and told her not to worry about it. And when Leah sought a second opinion, another doctor said the same thing.
But when Leah met Ben, her attitude to the mole changed. “[Leah] went, ‘I can’t have this horrible thing on my arm,’” her mother recalled. “So she went to get it cosmetically removed.” And it was then that doctors determined that something was wrong.
“She rang me up and was all hysterical, like she was really upset and worried,” Ben explained. “You could tell in her voice and she’s like, ‘Oh, that thing that I got cut out of my arm, the doctor wants me to come in. And they’ve rung my parents, and they all want us to come in and talk about it.’ She knew straight away that something was wrong.”
Doctors had performed a biopsy on the mass that they removed. They wanted to establish if any disease was present and, if so, how far it had progressed. And the results showed that it was a stage-four malignant melanoma. “The worst one you can get” in terms of skin cancer diagnoses, Ben said.
Nonetheless, Leah was determined to fight on. Surgeons subsequently removed the cancerous mole, as well as the lymph nodes surrounding it, in early 2013. Even with such invasive surgery, however, the medical team said there was still a 30 percent chance that Leah’s cancer would return.
So, for three years after her operation, she went for routine check-ups to make sure that her cancer had not returned. She would undergo full-body scans and CT scans, and on each occasion she received the all-clear. With her health in order, she could plan the rest of her life with Ben.
In October 2016 Leah and Ben got married on a breezy, sunny afternoon. “I vow to love you in every way that I can,” Leah said, holding her husband-to-be’s hands. However, that romantic day would prove to be the complete opposite of how the next few months of their lives would unfold.
“A month after the wedding, she started getting some headaches and nausea. And I thought, ‘Oh, yes, she’s pregnant.’ I was stoked,” Ben said, clearly happy at the idea of having a child with his new wife. Just to be sure, Leah saw two doctors about the ongoing pain, and they told her that it was caused by stress due to her recent nuptials.
Then, just weeks after receiving a clean bill of health from her doctors, Leah collapsed at work. Only then did medical professionals uncover the truth: the newlywed was not cancer-free. In reality, the disease had rapidly spread to her brain, bones, lungs, liver and spleen.
“From there, I walked in the hospital, she’s had a stroke,” Ben recalled, tears welling up in his eyes. “I just remember her looking at me and just, almost looking through me. She couldn’t speak, her face was dropped, and she had a massive brain tumor.”
With her health in such a bad state, it didn’t take long to realize that Leah’s doctors had been misdiagnosing her all along. “At the time of our wedding, she was riddled with cancer,” Ben explained. “She would have had a brain tumor at that stage as well.”
With so much cancer in her body, Leah succumbed to the disease just three months after their wedding. She died in January 2017, leaving behind a devastated and angry family. No one could believe that her condition had been missed by so many medical professionals. “We watched her take her last breath,” her father, Lex, said. “You don’t ever want to have to go through something like that, it’s really cruel.”
Ben was left bereft by her death. He eventually decided to go on his and Leah’s dream honeymoon, a road trip through Australia with their dog and, now, just a photo of his wife. “Sometimes you can’t even drive,” he said. “You’ve just gotta pull over on the side of the road and have a moment … you can’t breathe.”
But Ben and Leah’s family all agreed that sharing her heartbreaking story – one that could potentially have had a happy ending, if doctors had detected her disease earlier – will help raise awareness of the dangers of melanoma. Her husband also hopes that his trip around their home country will help him heal. “I feel like I could love again,” Ben said. “But Leah will always be my wife and my soulmate.”