When the time came for Kim Musselman to toss the bouquet at her wedding, she tossed her wig instead. In that moment, it didn’t matter that the chemo had stripped her of all of her hair, and it didn’t matter that her new husband had to sit through the ceremony in a wheelchair because he, too, was undergoing cancer treatment. She’d never felt more free.

For these lovebirds, the road was never easy. Frank was living with multiple sclerosis when he received a diagnosis of stage-four lung cancer; after that, a routine mammogram revealed Kim had breast cancer. Just when everything had come together for the couple, they began receiving radiation and chemo in tandem. As a result, what was already a strong connection became even stronger, and the moment he saw Kim walk down a staircase lined with candles inside the historic Racquet Club of Philadelphia, his spirit soared.

For so many reasons, couples like Frank and Kim who are fighting life-threatening illnesses rarely have the time or funds necessary to plan their dream wedding. That’s where Wish Upon a Wedding comes in: the California-based nonprofit provides free weddings to couples nationwide who are facing terminal illness and other serious life-altering circumstances. The act of planning the wedding itself is often a welcome respite from the day to day grind of medical treatments, bills, and other challenges, and thanks to the volunteers and people who donate all sorts of whimsical wedding elements, all the happy couple has to worry about is picking out their cake, flowers, and decor.

“Most people you tell you’re going through chemo have no idea what you’re really going through,” says Frank. “There are pains chemo causes you never imagine. My ankles sometimes hurt to the point that I want to cry. Well Kim knew these things, and I know these things, and now we know each other better than most couples ever can.”

He continued, “There’s a line in Rocky along the lines of, ‘It’s not about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you get hit and keep pushing forward.’ We live by that quote. We even have a boxing bell hanging in our living room. So we had everyone in our wedding party wear boxing gloves, and we also wore gloves when we were announced to the Rocky theme song.”

As for Mark and Ana Zvonke, well, they never planned to fall in love–when they met, they were both married to other people and worked at the same architecture and engineering firm. They were also equally unhappy.

“As we became friends, we began confiding in each other and talked about the similarities in our situations. It was just a friendship…but when our relationship started, it wasn’t like I found love again. It was like I found love for the first time,” says Ana Zvonek, 40.

As she continued to fall deeper in love, Ana, who lived alone with her children, began developing extreme stomach pains that doctors originally blamed on a parasite contracted from drinking water while camping. Ana insisted on X-rays, which revealed an inoperable tumor in her colon, the grueling treatment for which she is still going through to this day.

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Despite the challenges that come with that treatment, she and Mark made the decision to apply with Wish Upon a Wedding for the day of their dreams, hoping for the chance to celebrate a love neither had ever expected to find. Mark and Ana were married at the Bahia Resort Hotel in San Diego this past October, and admit that accepting their dream wedding as a gift was difficult at first and remains humbling.

“We don’t like accepting big gifts,” confesses Mark, 36. “But this taught us it’s OK. When you deserve something, you deserve it. Ana has gone through chemo every week for three years, so I realized she deserves this.”

Mark says that the staff of Wish Upon a Wedding literally sat them down and asked them to list everything they could ever want, and no request for certain flowers, food, or ceremonial detail went unmet.

Making memories to last a lifetime, he adds, means even more when illness threatens to cut that lifetime short.

“I recently started a new job where I was very transparent about saying, ‘My wife is sick, and I have to be with her—this is my life,’” says Mark. “Ana’s diagnosis has only brought me closer to her. Having someone to share your life with is the most important thing there is.”

While illness takes most couples by surprise after they’ve already fallen in love, it’s been a factor for Chris and Amanda Carlson from the beginning. At 13 years old, Amanda, now 25, was told a bump on her head doctors at first assumed was a swollen sweat gland turned was actually a form of cancer so rare Amanda is still only the seventh person in the world to receive a diagnosis. Amanda has since undergone thirty surgeries to treat a dizzying array of complications ranging from persistent hernias to severe stomach pains.

“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard,” her husband, Chris, 28, acknowledges, “but I believe things will get better. Eventually we’re gonna get there. But it’s very tough to plan anything because we don’t know if we’ll have a second income in a week or a month.”

Thus, planning a wedding, they assumed, would be impossible–until their Wish was granted.

“We really wanted a fall wedding, and it was a very cold fall wedding,” Amanda says with a laugh of last October’s sudden drop in temperature.

“We kept postponing our wedding because I kept getting sick, but eventually we were able to have the dream wedding without having the stress of planning it. There are a lot of details that go into weddings, but I didn’t have to worry about any of that. I could just enjoy it,” she said. “The best part was having all our close family friends around.”

Throughout their continued hardship, they continue to fight, and to treasure the memory of their dream wedding in Minnetrista, Minnesota.

“I would like to spend time with Chris planning a honeymoon rather than returning to the hospital for further surgeries,” she said. “For the moment, though, love—and some gorgeous wedding pictures set against the Minnesota sky—is getting me through.”

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