Arlene and Layla Sibetang were friends for years before they started dating. Once they were together, they parented their five kids, fought illness, and rooted each other on as Arlene became a firefighter. When Arlene was diagnosed with an aggressive, stage-4 cancer, the couple wed at the Palo Alto Fisher House and settled in to fight it together.
When Arlene Sibetang, an Army vet, woke up next to her fiancée in the Palo Alto Fisher House on December 29, 2021, she was a little annoyed. Her chemotherapy appointments weren’t until the afternoon, and she wanted to sleep in. But Layla was insistent, “No, you’ve got to wake up. Wake up. You said you wanted to marry me, right?”
They hadn’t discussed dates, rings, flowers, or guest lists, but a chaplain walked into the room. “I heard you want to get married?” Arlene looked at Layla. “What did you do?”
The engagement, long discussed, had only recently become official. Arlene has worked for years as a firefighter on Guam. She ignored a growing pain in 2021, unwilling to take leave while her community fought surges of COVID-19. Unfortunately, when Layla finally got Arlene to have it checked, it turned out to be a rare and aggressive cancer that had already progressed to Stage 4.
After the couple traveled almost 6,000 miles to California for cancer treatments, they learned that Arlene’s prognosis was not what they expected, even with chemo.
The doctor asked if they wanted to fight or go home.
Instead, the couple decided to get married and fight the cancer. “Not out of fear that she was going to die, but I’ve never been married before, she’s never been married, and we really wanted to get married.”
Layla told Arlene, “We're gonna fight. You’re not just a firefighter, you are a fighter.”
The next morning, Palo Alto Fisher House Manager Tracy Marino asked Layla how Arlene was.
“I just broke down. I didn't have anyone else to talk to about it, you know the news we got. I just started telling her everything… then I just started crying, ‘She asked me to get married. I want to marry her.’”
When Layla started listing all the things she didn’t know how to do in California, like applying for a marriage license, Tracy offered to help. “Don’t worry. Just go to the hospital and be with her. It’ll be okay. I will make some calls to the Chaplain Service to see if they can help.”
The news spread like wildfire. The hospital chaplain called the court, explained the situation, and asked if a marriage license could be pushed through. It came back, signed, two days later. Layla went to local stores to find items for her and Arlene, like rings and matching pajamas. Tracy went through the Fisher House’s decorations to find items that would make it feel like a wedding and got a cake and a bouquet.
The ceremony came together so quickly, and with so little effort on Arlene’s part, that she was surprised when Layla woke her up and the chaplain came in. There, in the Fisher House, their new friends were arrayed, socially distanced, in pajamas of their own. The assistant manager broadcast the ceremony on FaceTime to family on Guam, as the housekeeper and a hospital photographer took photos.
“From now on, when we say home, we mean Fisher House,” Layla said.
The two women, now happily married, plan to fight through chemo and cancer until this summer.
Layla said of Arlene, “She has always had an uncommon courage, remained compassionate and dedicated. I fell more and more in love with Arlene’s patience, strength, and tolerance throughout the years, not just in our relationship, but also with her work ethic. I knew that I could spend a lifetime of loyalty and love with her.”
Layla’s five kids, including two veterans, still tease their mom’s wife that she can change her mind. “You can still say ‘no,’ if our mom is too much for you. The State of California has a two-week refund.”
But “It’s made her happy,” Layla says. “The residents here, the guests wouldn’t even know that she’s fighting cancer, because she’s so active. I think, emotionally, she’s better off. So now, you know, we just trust God. We do what we can physically, and He does His part spiritually.”