Three-time cancer survivor Joey Renick wasn’t sure he’d live long enough to get married. But on May 14, the 23-year-old tied the knot with his longtime sweetheart, Caylee, also 23.
The St. Louis lovebirds, who have spent a majority of their time together at hospitals while Joey received treatments, wed on Seacrest Beach, Florida, in front of 30 close friends and family.
“Standing on the beach listening to the ocean and watching my beautiful wife walk down in a gorgeous dress that I had only dreamed of since that moment was a dream come true,” Joey, a nursing student at Goldfarb School of Nursing, tells PEOPLE. “That was the moment I became overwhelmed that God had brought me through all these hard times and I was finally on the ocean about to marry the love of my life.”
“It was perfect,” Caylee, a nanny, tells PEOPLE. “I married the love of my life in the most perfect place in front of our closest friends.”
The couple met when they were both 10 years old at CAMP HIS KIDS, a support camp for children with cancer and their siblings. Joey was in remission after a three-year battle with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Caylee’s sister, Taylor, was diagnosed with a rare condition called Hemangiopericytoma cancer.
“Caylee was a camper in my sister Carol Anne’s group on the sibling side,” says Joey. “That year was our first year at the camp and my sister introduced us.
“I remember instantly thinking how cute she was and that’s pretty much when my crush started.”
The two kept in touch — especially after Taylor’s death at age 16 in 2008 — leaning on each other for support. But they attended different high schools and hardly ever saw each other.
“I always had a crush on her and she knew it!” says Joey. “We lived too far away to date so we just always stayed in contact with one another.”
Joey relapsed for the first time in August 2011 and four months later, he asked Caylee out on their first date.
“We probably were in Starbucks talking for hours about topics neither of us really ever talked about with anyone else,” recalls Joey. “We only stopped talking when the workers told us they were closing the store for the night. I know this will sound cliche but I honestly knew I loved her after our first date together. I had never in my life felt so comfortable talking to someone and felt the way I do around her.”
“When we first started dating we didn’t get to see each other a ton,” adds Caylee. “I would go and visit him at the hospital. When he was home he was so sick, that he was bedridden most of the time with fevers and throwing up.”
But never once did Caylee’s love for Joey falter.
“I think it really helped that we were friends first, I knew I cared about him and loved him as a friend and honestly I think what I went through with my sister being sick most of my life that prepared me,” says Caylee. “For a normal person it might have been too much, but for me I was familiar so it didn’t feel like too much.”
And in November 2015, almost three years after Joey went into remission for the second time, he asked Caylee to marry him during a recreation of their first Starbucks date.
“I knew he was the one, because being in the hospital with him for so long and seeing him sick, I thought to myself, ‘If I can do this for him and we’re only dating, I can do this forever,’ ” says Caylee. “He inspires me so much, despite everything he’s been through he looks at the bright side of life and his will to live and survive and do more with his life is so strong.”
The happy couple busied themselves with schoolwork and wedding planning.
But then, the unimaginable happened.
Joey’s cancer came back for a third time.
“We cancelled the venue, the caterer, we put everything on hold,” says Caylee. “But this time was different, I’d never seen him this sick before.”
Joey needed a bone marrow transplant, which he received from his sister in June 2016. Prior to the operation, Joey underwent chemo and radiation for 10 days in a row.
“He was on oxygen and had a high fever and I remember sitting there wondering if he’d make it out alive,” says Caylee. “I was so scared.”
After the successful procedure, the couple picked their wedding planning back up, but this time they planned with a sense of urgency.
A year later, Caylee and Joey said “I do” in front of 30 friends and family at Seacrest Beach, the last place Taylor, Caylee’s late sister, vacationed with her family before she passed away.
“It was a place that means a lot to me and my family,” explains Caylee. “And the weather was absolutely perfect, the people were perfect it was just what we needed after going through that last cancer scare. “
The couple walked down the aisle to Train’s “Marry Me.”
“I remember seeing Joey and telling myself to take it all in, because I knew the moment wouldn’t last forever,” says Caylee. “There’s so much worry in our relationship but in that moment we weren’t worrying about anything.”
Yes, there’s a possibility that Joey could relapse again — but Caylee chooses not to think about it.
“It’s always in the back of my mind — losing him,” says Caylee. “He’s been diagnosed three times now, but each day is a gift and that’s what I focus on.”
Joey’s health right now is “great” and the newlyweds are thankful for “every single day together.”
“His future scares me,” admits Caylee. “But we’re together now and that’s all that matters.”