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He Stood by Her Side, and Never Left

In 2014, Mr. Shirley took the distance out of their long-distance relationship by transferring to Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., where Ms. Valdez had enrolled upon graduating from high school. The following year, in May 2015, doctors deemed Mia cancer-free.

“Our prayers were answered,” Ms. Valdez said. “We were so thrilled for her.”

Three years later, in 2018, her sister Makenna, then 17, was diagnosed with lymphoma.

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At the time, Ms. Valdez was living Houston, where she had moved after graduating from college. She had recently broken up with Mr. Shirley, who was still living in Portland. But once she received the news of Makenna’s diagnosis, Ms. Valdez called him, and they were soon back together.

In April 2020, shortly after Ms. Valdez was accepted at Duke, she learned of a third diagnosis: Her mother, Jennifer Davis, had thyroid cancer. She considered putting law school on hold and moving back to Albuquerque, but Ms. Davis advised her against it. “You have to go,” Ms. Valdez recalled her mother telling her. “No one we know has had an opportunity like this.”

Months later, in June 2020, doctors declared Ms. Davis cancer-free. That summer, Ms. Valdez and Mr. Shirley moved together to Durham, N.C, where they currently live. By then, Mr. Shirley said, “I wanted to live wherever Marissa was,” adding, “I never once had second thoughts about” their move.

The following year, in February 2021, Makenna, now 21, was also deemed free of cancer. That July, the couple became engaged at Tingley Beach, a recreation and wildlife park along the Rio Grande in Albuquerque. Mr. Shirley, ring in hand, dropped to one knee and proposed as a dozen of their family members came out of hiding to help celebrate. Because of some inclement weather, it did not come as a total surprise to Ms. Valdez.

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