After Crystal Holliway was diagnosed with breast cancer, she offered her boyfriend an easy out.
"I told him, 'You didn't sign up for this.'"
Steve Owens had other thoughts.
"I had decided, 'I love you. I want to be with you. I don't break and run. We'll do it together,'" said Steve, 44, whose father died of pancreatic cancer about 10 years ago. "I have seen cancer at its worst."
"I don't know what I would have done without him," said Crystal, 43, sitting alongside Steve in their Belleville apartment. "He's been there when I couldn't get out of bed, when I was hurting so bad I couldn't do anything but just lay there."
Crystal learned she had cancer Nov. 21, 2011, after a routine mammogram.
"The scariest time was the two- or three-week period when I didn't know anything other than, 'You have cancer,'" said Crystal, whose short dark hair and long coppery earrings framed her face Saturday afternoon.
"I had to wait to get in to see the surgeon. All I knew is that it was Grade 3 and it was aggressive."
On Dec. 28, the cancerous tissue and lympth nodes were removed from her left breast, and a high-risk lesion was taken from her right breast. Crystal underwent chemotherapy from January through May, followed by 34 radiation treatments that took place daily before work.
Videos provided by Washington University Center for Advanced Medicine helped her know what to expect.
"Survivors shared their stories, what treatment they chose -- it was specifically for Afro American women -- how they reacted, how their famlies responded ... One lady didn't want to deal with her hair falling out so she cut it short," said Crystal, who did the same and started wearing wigs.
"I did things I would never do with my real hair. I have a blond wig. I just had fun with it."
"We picked them out together," said Steve, "and gave them names -- Amber, Beyonce. Crystal would say, 'Who do you want me to wear today?'"
Crystal finished chemo May 16 and radiation, July 21.
In the middle of it all, Steve proposed.
It was April 19, Crystal's birthday.
"I went for chemo every three weeks," said Crystal. "By the end of the second week, I was somewhat normal. My birthday fell in the somewhat normal phase."
"Her sister (Tracy Holliway-Wiggins) gave her a birthday party," said Steve. "I knew I wanted to marry her. I wanted her in my life. I am at an age, 44, where you know. It doesn't take a long time to know. I couldn't see life without her."
At the party, Steve handed Crystal a shopping bag.
"OK, this is my bedroom pillow out of the guest room," Crystal remembered thinking. "The bag is empty. You are giving me my pillow? I am shaking the bag and the pillow. Am I missing something? He puts the pillow on the floor and gets down on his knee."
After a birthday trip to Las Vegas, Crystal planned her wedding with help from family, friends and her groom.
"I have enough sense to know I am not a decorator," she said. "That's not my specialty. My Aunt (Clara Taylor) does weddings on the side. I told her, 'Do what you do.' All I know is I like tall vases and ivory, truffle with a little splash of red are the colors. I knew whatever she did was going to be amazing.
"Pastor (Ralph Jackson) caters. I knew the food would be good. I didn't know what they were serving. Two meats, three vegetables. Do what you do."
"It was awesome," said Steve, an insurance salesman for Humana. "We both chose the cake together."
Brown ribbon, pearls and roses dressed up a 4-tier square cake, created by Artistry on Cakes.
"It was beautiful," said Crystal. "I believe in letting people do what they do. I didn't stress too much. Everyone was saying, 'You're mighty calm.' It's going to be what it's going to be. With dealing with cancer, if something is not exactly right, OK, life goes on."
On Oct. 7, they married at Greater St. Luke AME Church in East St. Louis.
Crystal, a legal secretary with Hepler Broom in Edwardsville, is also a singer. She enjoys watching and performing in Black Rep productions such as "Tell Me Something Good," "Dressing Up, Stepping Out and Getting Down" and "Black Nativity."
"We were very much on the go," said Steve. "She's a person on the go."
Her last CT scan showed no cancer.
"I am feeling OK, but I still have body aches and fatigue," Crystal said. "Everyone is expecting you to jump right back in right now. I have chemo brain. It affects your memory. I have some of that going on."
That afternoon, they planned to rehearse music they would perform together during Sunday church services, hang out with her mom and see the film, "Taken 2."
Crystal and Steve first met more than 20 years ago.
She grew up in East St. Louis. He was from north St. Louis County.
He liked that she was pretty and funny.
"We just had a great time together," said Steve. "I was a singer back then. I was all over the place. I sang around town and traveled, that sort of thing. We just lost touch."
He moved to Atlanta, Orlando and Dallas, married, had a son, divorced and moved back to the area when his father became ill.
They reconnected early last year after Crystal was introduced to his younger brother, Mark, a musician playing at her cousin's church.
"I said, 'Do you have a brother named Steve? Tell him I said "hello.'""
Steve was interested.
"I said, 'I want her number. I want to see her.'"
"That Sunday after services I called him," she said. "I left a message on his voice mail. 'Hey, this is Crystal. Long time, no see. Mark said you wanted me to call.'"
"When I heard the message, it was wow," said Steve. "I called her right away."
The following weekend, they saw a movie together.
"I knew on our first date, this is it," said Steve. "I told my good friend, 'I am not letting her go again.'"
"He had changed and matured," said Crystal.
"He needed to go through things he's gone through to make him what he is now -- which is perfect for me."