When Sarena Vilandre and her husband Tyler Vilandre, both 21, met in sixth grade, their connection was instant.
“It was love at first sight! I had the biggest crush on him, I would draw his name and put hearts all over it!” Sarena tells PEOPLE with a giggle. “I didn’t know back then how much he would end up meaning to me in the future.
“He would be my everything.”
The two became fast friends and started dating during their senior year at Keller Central High School in Fort Worth, Texas. They fell in love and talked about getting married and starting a life together when they were older.
But the couple faced devastating news in February 2015 when Sarena was diagnosed with bone cancer. She was given three to 12 months to live in 2016 and placed in hospice care, so the couple decided to tie the knot in September.
“We had to think about things most couples our age don’t, like death,” says Sarena. “I tell him, ‘If I die, I just want you to be happy.’ My biggest worry about death is how others are going to react.”
Sarena and Tyler celebrated their first, and, most likely, their last Valentine’s Day on Sunday with a nice, quiet dinner together at the Cheesecake Factory.
“It was beautiful and perfect, just us two,” she says.
Sarena, who is “afraid, but not terrified of death,” is thankful for every minute she’s able to spend with her husband, who takes her to her appointments and spends every night with her at Medical City Children’s Hospital in Dallas before she was went into hospice care.
“Most people would have walked away from a partner with cancer at our age,” she says. “Not Tyler, he’s stuck by my side when I’m my most vulnerable. And I can’t explain how much that means to me.”
Sarena says she was first drawn to Tyler’s “romantic nature.”
“He is sorta cheesy!” she says. “So, like, for Valentine’s Day in high school he gave me five surprises throughout the day, so each class I had something new waiting on my desk like chocolates or balloons.”
And she says she knew from the beginning that he was going to be “the one.”
“Oh yes, from the very start,” says Sarena. “He was just different.”
The two attended prom together and made plans to stay together after graduating high school in May 2013.
It was during Sarena’s sophomore year at University of North Texas, where she was studying speech language pathology and working with deaf children, that she received news of her dark diagnosis — a bone cancer called osteosarcoma.
And the prognosis wasn’t good.
“It matured our relationship very quickly because we had only been dating for about a year and a half,” says Sarena. “We had to start thinking about our future and whether we could start a life together.”
Sarena immediately underwent chemotherapy treatment and by November 2015, was officially in remission. But in January 2016, she relapsed and was put on a clinical trial.
Sarena transitioned to hospice care in July 2016 and given anywhere from 3-to-12 months to live. Sarena sat Tyler down to tell him the news — and his response surprised her.
“I told him I wanted to get married and he was like, ‘I do too.’ ” she says. “So we began planning a wedding to happen in a few months, because I wasn’t sure how long I was going to have.”
The couple got married on September 17 at Historic 512, a Dallas venue that donates all proceeds to Center for Transforming Lives, which breaks the cycle of poverty for women and children through safe housing. The entire wedding was donated and arranged by Heroes for Children, a nonprofit that provides financial and social assistance to families with children battling cancer.
“It was my dream wedding and more than I could have asked for. It was the happiest day of my life,” says Sarena. “I know it’s cheesy but walking down the aisle, everyone disappeared and I just saw Tyler.”
Sarena is currently living at her mom’s house in Watauga, Texas, while Tyler finishes his senior year at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. He comes to visit his wife every chance he gets.
“He’s so caring, when he was there for everything I kept thinking, ‘Wow this kid really loves me, we’re going to be together forever,’ ” she says. “I’ve accepted that death could come soon, and it’s been my purpose to inspire and help others going through the same thing, so I feel I’ve fulfilled my purpose.”
Sarena hopes Tyler will “continue living.”
“I’ve told him that if something happens to me I don’t want him to feel that he doesn’t deserve happiness again,” she says. “I said, ‘If you meet someone that brings you joy, do it. Don’t let me hold you back.’ Because that’s the last thing I would want.
“He’s my love and I’ll always care for him, no matter what happens.”