Since they were firm friends, always chatting and laughing whenever they met, the 17-year-old boy finally plucked up the courage to ask out the girl he had fancied for months.
“It dawned on me that she’s the one for me,” Yandrick Cassar says, recalling that he asked her for a date at a cancer fundraising event.
“I never expected it! It was the last thing I thought he would come up with when he said he had something important to tell me,” says Kayleigh Caruana, 18, laughing.
As they speak, the two teenagers hold hands, finish off each other’s sentences, read each other’s thoughts. The reason they were at the Puttinu Cares Foundation activity is that they, a few years ago, both had life-threatening cancer.
It all sounds a lot like The Fault in Our Stars, the book by John Green in which a 16-year-old cancer patient, Hazel, meets and falls in love with Augustus, 17, a basketball player who is also fighting cancer. The difference is that our story has a happy ending.
Kayleigh, from Vittoriosa, survived bone cancer, which hit her at the age of 13, and Yandrick, from Żabbar, survived a severe nose cancer that struck him two years ago.
This is the first time they are speaking publicly about their illnesses, which made them under-go aggressive treatments. Both reserved and pragmatic, they shy away from the limelight and never wanted people to look at them and say “jaħasra” (how sad).
When, at 15, I was told I had cancer I was heartbroken. I saw all my football dreams collapse. But then I went to hospital and Rennie came along and he said to me: ‘Yes, you have cancer but we’re going to fight it’
Puttinu CEO Rennie Zerafa had a hard time persuading them to be interviewed. “However, in the end, we accepted, because Puttinu gave us so much and it’s time we gave something back,” says Kayleigh.
They do not want to talk about their cancer, the suffering, the trauma or the scars the illness has left on their bodies: “That’s over; we moved on”. What they want to do is appeal to people to donate to the Puttinu Foundation tomorrow during Xarabank on TVM, because for them the NGO has been a beacon of light.
“When, at 15, I was told I had cancer I was heartbroken. I saw all my football dreams collapse. But then I went to hospital and Rennie came along and he said to me: ‘Yes, you have cancer but we’re going to fight it’.” At the mention of ‘Rennie’ their faces light up and they smile mischievously.
“The thing is that, with the Puttinu volunteers, when you go to the paediatric oncology ward you forget that it’s supposed to be a sad place. The pain is there, of course, because the side effects of the treatment are at times literally unbearable, but they go out of their way to make sure it’s fun,” says Kayleigh.
“Rennie kept my football dream going,” says Yandrick. He was a goalkeeper for the Pietà under-15 squad and, just before cancer struck, was also picked to join the minors of the national team.
Cancer made him too weak to even walk, but the minute he finished chemotherapy, he started walking and training on his own and eventually was good enough to play again. He is on loan to Żejtun FC now and is “immensely happy”. But he won’t stop there: his target is that, one day, he will get to play abroad.
Surviving cancer, they say, changed their perspective on life. They attend the Higher Secondary in Naxxar, and both realise they need to study hard to become oncology paediatric nurses.
Pre-illness they would nearly faint at the sight of blood. “But when you go through so much at hospital, then it all becomes normal,” Kayleigh admits.
They also feel ‘older’ than their peers. Sometimes they see acquaintances put up posts on Facebook complaining they hurt their toe. “Surviving cancer teaches you not to make a fuss about the little, frivolous things in life and that some matters are very private and should not be shared on Facebook,” Yandrick advises.
Their experiences have also showed them who their true friends are and the blessing of having the unwavering support of their siblings and families.
“I appreciate my mother so much more now; she’s been with me through it all,” says Kayleigh.
The young couple prefers to live day by day. They plan to travel the world, with Greece and London at the top of the list, and, of course, building a future together is a high priority.
“When we feel like something, we just do it. We are here today. Who knows about tomorrow?”
The Puttinu Cares Foundation was set up in 2002 and began with an idea and a desire to offer a holistic approach to care for families with children suffering from cancer. Victor Calvagna and Rennie Zerafa were the founders.
On average, 30 young Maltese patients travel to the UK for diagnosis or treatment each month. Puttinu Cares spends about €500,000 to help families with travelling and subsistence expenses.
Donations to Puttinu Cares Foundation can be made as follows:
• Fixed lines: 51702006 - €15; 51802008 - €25.
• SMS: 50618939 - €6.99.
• HSBC account number 0890 7734 1001, IBAN number MT55MMEB44897000000089077341001.
• BOV account number 0400 1812 2134, IBAN number MT70VALL22013000000040018122134.
• Online at www.puttinucares.org/donations.asp.
When meeting cancer patients...
This is what Kayleigh and Yandrick advise:
• Do not say jaħasra (how sad) or miskin (poor thing) or talk to a cancer patient in pitying tones.
• Do not ignore patients and start talking about them to other people as if they are not there.
• Do not say the word kuraġġ (be strong). “It’s obvious that the patient is trying to be strong.”
• Do not go next to the bed of a cancer patient and start talking about your minor aches and pains.
• Do not stay next to a patient’s bed for hours on end chatting and gossiping.
• Do ask a close relative before you visit because, sometimes, patients just need to sleep.
• Do ask how the patient is and take an interest in what they are saying if they want to open up; do not try to change the subject.
• Do talk about the patient’s hobbies and passions and try to make the patient laugh.
• Do believe in the power of prayer.
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