ANNABELLE VASSALLO was diagnosed with cancer on Boxing Day in 2006. Four years on, the disease is threatening to cripple her, but Ariadne Massa finds that cancer cannot dent her steely spirit or shake her indomitable faith.
A comforting aroma of home cooking wafts into the living area, prompting Annabelle Vassallo to close her eyes and inhale, but the smile of pleasure does not linger.
“The only thing I can ‘eat’ is liquids. I’m having difficulty ingesting, and once I’ve lost my appetite for food, I’ve lost everything,” she says, taking a small sip of water.
A glass with pears and apple, whizzed to a pulp, has been standing by her side for the past four hours, and chances are the marrow soup her mother is cooking will suffer the same fate.
Annabelle is having to take protein shakes, which she hates and finds a poor replacement for a meal, but eating – which gave her so much comfort and pleasure in the past – has become an ordeal. She feels everything just gets stuck in her throat, preferring to come back up than go down into her stomach.
Her appetite has a habit of teasing her, waking her up at 4 a.m. with the craving to devour a big juicy rib-eye steak, then disappearing fast, seeming like a dream.
Looking back, she feels fortunate her appetite remained fiercely alive despite undergoing numerous sessions of chemotherapy and radiotherapy to kill the cancer, only waning in the past two months.
Annabelle was diagnosed with cancer on Boxing Day four years ago, just hours after the funeral of her beloved grandmother. She describes the tumour that popped up on the MRI scan like a truncheon dangling from her neck alongside her spine.
Even in those difficult moments, “food, glorious food” remained a reassuring pillar, and there is a funny anecdote in her book, Irrid Ngħix (I Want to Live) about her eating habits. She was in the UK undergoing a series of tests, and as she waited for the doctor to return with the exact diagnosis she tucked into a fresh baguette with coleslaw and honey mustard chicken.
The doctor turned up as she was halfway through the meal to tell her she had high-grade soft tissue sarcoma – one of the most aggressive cancers they had seen in the UK, where the risk of paralysis was high.
She was shocked and terrified. Somehow she plucked up the courage to break the silence and tell the doctor she had gone to the UK to be treated and she wanted medical staff to do their utmost. She then chomped on her sandwich.
The doctor was so gobsmacked by her reaction he was convinced she had not understood a thing so he repeated the diagnosis. “I understand English”, was her reply.
Looking back on those days she laughs wistfully, the rays of sun catching the glitter of gloss soothing her thin lips.
“When I fell ill I used to wonder when I would start losing weight. I really wanted to shed a few kilos; at least I thought there could be one good thing in all this,” she laughs, stopping to gasp for air.
Her wish has been granted four years later. In a matter of two months she lost 18 kilos, but she is sad it had to be at the expense of her appetite as the cancer spreads slowly through her body.
The original tumour was ‘killed’ in September 2007 – a very happy period she describes as miraculous – but it metastasised in her lungs six months later and it has been a battle to remain alive since.
October 2009 was her last visit to the UK, where the British doctor broke the news that there was nothing else he could do. Refusing to give up, she returned to Malta, and with encouragement from her local doctor underwent three final sets of chemotherapy.
“That’s when I lost all my hair again, and it hasn’t grown properly since,” she says, her lower lip protruding in mock despair.
“I pray for my hair to grow back a bit more,” she adds, attempting to twirl her finger through the small fine tufts that sparsely cover her scalp.
She has been living on borrowed time since the last chemo session.
“The cancer has spread to the lungs, spleen, brain, liver... I don’t know where else; every organ is affected. I’m not making much of a big deal. I know I’m going to die,” she says, her raspy voice never missing a beat.
Throughout the interview, her emotions ebb and flow between trying to let her trademark positivity shine through and being realistic about her condition.
“What scares me is becoming totally dependent. I’m short of breath, I cannot walk well... Yet, I feel so alive; I have such an incredible energy, but at the same time I cannot walk, I need help to get out of bed, to wear a sock and that frustrates me so much,” she says, pulling a tissue out of her pocket to wipe away the tears.
“I’m a very independent person, but all of a sudden I cannot live alone. Just a few days ago I was standing in the kitchen putting something back into the cupboard, when my legs just gave way – it’s as if somebody shot me in the back and I fell.
“I couldn’t get back up, but luckily I’m never alone in the house. Once, I was on the sofa and I slipped off. These are the things that torment me so much. Death per se does not scare me, even though I love life.”
How can she say something like this with such conviction?
“Death does not scare me because of the promise Jesus made to us when he told his disciples, ‘I’m going to prepare a room for you’. That gives me a lot of hope.
“I just want to meet Jesus. I imagine this room he’s preparing for me is a place where there is no pain, no more chemotherapy, where I can be healthy again. That’s what I imagine,” she says.
“I experienced Jesus a lot in my life, I had a lot of beautiful experiences of his love towards me and I believe when I die it won’t be just one experience but an eternity. You have to experience Jesus to know what you’re missing.”
It’s a promise she clings to, and her faith is indomitable – it gives her strength to know Jesus is with her in suffering, in sickness and in health; without it, life does not make sense to her.
“My friends and family never left my side, but there were places where nobody could go in with me, such as the radiotherapy room – a really ugly, horrible room. I had to stay alone, but Jesus was with me. I would take a cross and the rosary beads, which filled me with so much peace in that miserable place,” she says.
“In the beginning when I was diagnosed I knew cancer equalled death and I accepted it. It was either me or somebody else, so why not me? I thought I tackled it well and I was at peace with myself – I impressed myself and wondered where I got this inner strength from.
“Once, I asked the Archbishop why he thought I had inner peace at such a difficult time. And he said, ‘Annabelle you reap what you sow’... It energised me to fight this battle.”
Annabelle attributes her faith to her upbringing, going to Mass with her family, being part of a prayer group in her hometown Siġġiewi, and her later years as an active member of the Youth Fellowship. Religion is something she practised all her life.
Hundreds of youngsters have had an identical upbringing, but few have turned out with her faith. Why?
“I had a thirst for Jesus. I felt I was special for him. I felt we were friends... When I fell ill it’s what gave me the most strength,” she says, turning around to ask her mother for some water to soothe her throat parched by the daily dose of morphine.
Her faith refuses to be crushed even when the pain cripples her. She takes nine tablets of morphine (for the pain) and steroids (for the inflammation) in the morning and in the evening every day.
At times her body is overcome with so much pain she is unable to control the chilling moan that comes out of her, breaking the hearts of those around her.
“I’m not a fusspot. I try hard to contain it so as not to worry anyone, but it’s too painful. It feels as if somebody is stabbing my lungs,” she says, making whooshing noises to describe the movements of somebody stabbing her insides.
When she’s desperate she takes liquid morphine that works immediately.
“Sometimes I feel like glugging down all the bottle at one go to dull the pain,” she says.
“When I pray, I ask the Lord – if I remain broken and shattered – (to take me)... I’m living a tough life, I wake up every morning and I battle with myself to be positive, and it’s the most difficult fight because it’s so easy to remain in bed.
“My fear is wallowing in self-pity. I have to fight it. If I remain an extra five minutes in bed I challenge myself. I have nothing in particular I look forward to in the day. But I have to reason with myself to get up. It’s an everyday battle against self-pity.”
Her mother makes waking up a bit more bearable by giving her a massage with olive oil in the morning, something Annabelle really cherishes.
What exasperates her most these days is that she is unable to do much. She uses a walking stick to get around the house, and the walks in the countryside are becoming shorter.
“I hate it when I’m not productive, but at the same time I don’t have the strength. I wish to start painting and playing the guitar again,” she says, looking wistfully at the big black guitar case in the corner gathering dust.
“My energy fails me; even talking is an effort these days. At the end of the day I want to live. There were times when I willed death to take me away, but I can count these occasions on one hand. Life is beautiful, despite the state I’m in.”
Annabelle manages a hearty laugh as she recounts how she speaks to her cancer at least once a week, entreating it to lay off the pain during the early hours of the morning.
“I have a relationship with my tumour. My wheezing gets worse at night and I start arguing with the cancer: ‘You and I have to decide, we’re either going to make friends or we’re enemies; isn’t it better if we’re friends?’ Sometimes the wheezing stops... Then when it returns I urge it to throw itself off Għar Lapsi cliffs.”
Catching her breath, she keeps her upbeat mood and recounts how cancer has changed her and she is suddenly rediscovering herself.
“I’m not the goody-goody person people think I am. My friends tell me I’m sugar-coated. I’m becoming a pain. I lose my temper easily. When somebody doesn’t understand me immediately I start shouting and that’s aggravating me a lot. I’m bothering myself, let alone my friends.
They sometimes tell me I’m using my illness to get what I want. I guess they’re right sometimes; at least I can make some use of this sickness,” she adds with a cheeky grin.
Every day she prays to do good, but she smiles at the irony that she is housebound. She tries to remain in touch and reply to an e-mail in a day, in the hope of lifting somebody’s mood.
Ever since her autobiography was released, the number of e-mails, Facebook messages and telephone calls she has received has been immense; messages of support and cries of pain from those seeking a listening ear.
The book sold some 17,000 copies, with all proceeds going towards Puttinu Cares Foundation, which works with child cancer patients.
“I never dreamt it would be such a success. When the book was doing well I was scared of appearing myself. Popularity is easy to get used to, and this scared me. I always pray this book will continue to do good – not for my glory – for as long as I live and even after.”
Does she have any unfinished business?
“What I really wanted to do was go on a luxurious cruise where I could eat all the time, swim, walk along those beautiful beaches... you know, those places where people go on honeymoon, except I wanted to go with my friends.”
She snaps out of her daydream and focuses on the screen of her laptop. At the moment she is spending every ounce of energy organising Mass for her friends at her house on Christmas Eve – she has a surprise in store for each one – choosing the carols; the joyous ones she loved when she was younger, like Emmanuel, she says, attempting to sing the tune.
She takes life day by day, focusing on one little project at a time. Her next goal is to remain on earth to witness the birth of her niece, who will be called Ana after her, and then maybe her 40th birthday on April 19.
“I hope to still be around, but for me these dates seem far away. Then again, the doctor in the UK gave me two to three months to live... A year has passed since then and Christmas is here. It’s a great satisfaction to have lived this long.”
Watch excerpts of the interview on www.timesofmalta.com.