Suffering, Survival and Legacy: Author Debora Annino on Giving Back After Cancer
When Barry Annino set out to write a book on life after a terminal diagnosis, his wife embarked on her own writing journey. Their new memoir chronicles their experience in “suffering, survival and legacy” from two very different perspectives—two sides of the same coin. In this Q&A, co-author Debora Annino shares insights into keeping the faith during her own battle with breast cancer, and the steps she’s taking to continue her journey of writing and service through the Little Things Matter Foundation.
Debora, you wrote this book after your husband’s diagnosis with a terminal illness. What was the original intention behind it?
Writing about suffering was never my original plan. Before Barry was diagnosed with Stage IV liver cancer, I was writing about my journey along El Camino de Santiago, the ancient route of pilgrims and seekers across Northern Spain. But that writing journey took a left turn after Barry became ill. At that point, I realized I had entered a new chapter in our lives, so I set that project aside and focused on what was in front of us. During our crisis, my CaringBridge journal became my writing outlet. Meanwhile, Barry had become interested in documenting his experience and the new point of view he was developing in his life. Eventually, our stories—and our paths—converged into this book “Little Things Matter” and a charitable foundation by the same name.
Clearly, suffering was not the topic you intended to write on, but you had a crash course in it and have come out of it with some wisdom to share. Have you found any source of hope in suffering?
I’ve learned that during any trial you are going through – I’ve had friends suffer job losses, illness, the anxiety of isolation, tough stuff – if you keep your focus on the hope of the future instead of the bog of despair, it helps carry you through. A harsh, sometimes terrible reality of life is that people suffer. I have a dear friend and former professor whose adult son committed suicide during COVID-19. He was in his 40s with a wife and young son. My friend also lost her husband when her boys were teenagers. So, yes, there is suffering that comes from mental illness and things in life that overwhelm us. But there is also suffering that comes from being human and living in a broken world. We can’t escape it, but we can learn to get through it with the hope that gives us the ability to endure and see the good even amidst the pain.
How do you personally maintain hope in the future?
For me, coming from a faith-based perspective, thinking of the greater good that can come out of this gives me hope. This trial takes Lena and me to a place of growth that is more significant than where we were before. It is a painful journey, and some days we are just pushing through. Yet, I’m learning that difficulty, challenges, and discomfort lead us to become who we are meant to be—that is if we allow ourselves to learn from it. Barry left this earth a greater man because of his journey of suffering. He acquired a deeper understanding of the purpose of life and greater compassion for others.
Did seeing your husband’s journey through the lens of faith affect your attitude about terminal illness?
Definitely. Barry didn’t want to suffer or go through what he had to go through, but by his own admission, he was happier for it. It was very comforting to me to understand the power of transformation in Barry’s life. There are confidence and grounding that comes from knowing that what we’re going through today does have a purpose. If we go back to my faith perspective, scripture says in this world there will be trouble. Knowing that we aren’t alone, we do have Christ who came to help us, and one day all shall be well.
Your faith seems to be a source of courage for you. Can you explain how this works?
Sure, I can try. To illustrate, Easter before last, I was in church, and during my time of worship, I had a vision of Barry. I imagined him standing next to Jesus. He had a big smile on his face, and he was staring down at me, and I got this feeling that where he is so much better than where we are. And then there was this other time when I was walking my neighborhood, and there was this absolutely beautiful orange and pink sky. I thought if that was just a small glimpse of Heaven’s beauty, then there is something beautiful ahead. Knowing that God’s place is more beautiful than the glow of a sunset, I’m not afraid of dying or where I’m going. I’m only concerned about the wellbeing of those I leave behind.
What lessons can you share now that you are enduring your own experience with cancer?
Getting this diagnosis after losing Barry feels significant. Of course, it leaves you wondering what it means. It is hard not to ask why. When I began to look for answers for Barry, I recall that he didn’t want to do that. He didn’t want to be consumed with researching cancer. It becomes overwhelming. Now that I’m experiencing this myself, I understand why he wasn’t being more proactive. I have felt the same. I want to enjoy my days without all my thoughts being consumed by cancer. One of Barry’s quotes we used in the book is, “Even if I live to be 80, I realize I’m on the meter.” You realize that life is short. So I try to focus on what he did, which is helping others through our foundation.
Tell us about that.
One of my greatest passions and delights is supporting meaningful projects in Mexico that generate long-term impact through our non-profit, Little Things Matter. Examples of our work include raising chickens and organic farming. Both provide much-needed nutrition but also education, skills-building, and economic opportunities. We invest in educational-enrichment classes for children in marginalized communities, and we host an engaging week-long summer camp for children that teaches about creation care and their value made in the image of God. Some of these projects have been interrupted by COVID-19, but we have found other ways to keep investing in communities in areas of need during this pandemic by distributing food to the most vulnerable and providing children with educational activity take-home kits.
What excites you most about completing this book?
My goal was to honor Barry’s life and to know that I shared his message. Documenting it in this book ensures his experience and mode of expression will live on and have an impact. Beyond that personal goal, the real purpose of writing this, or anything, is to bring a new perspective to the world. Knowing that even one person was touched by, it brings me joy.
What excites you about writing in general?
Since getting started down this road, I’ve been fortunate to have mentors to help me grow as a writer. Now I’m trying to pass it on to others who are beginning their own journey. I have the honor of hosting an annual writer’s workshop and retreat at my home in San Miguel de Allende with Dr. Sandra Glahn, a seasoned author, and professor of media arts and worship at Dallas Theological Seminary. Dr. Glahn teaches classes such as Creative Writing and Writing for Publication at the graduate and doctoral levels. As she told aspiring writers at our workshop last January:My advice, if you are inclined at all to write, is this: Do it. Don’t let that voice telling you someone else has ‘already done it better’ hold you back. Perhaps that better-written book will never make it into the hands of one of your readers, and you will get to be the fortunate soul through whom someone’s life is forever changed.
I agree wholeheartedly with this advice. We all have our voice. If we want, each of us can share a part of ourselves by leaving our stories behind, whether through the history we share with our families, the wisdom we impart to our children, or what we leave for our communities.
Do you have any final words for others who may have stories in them that have yet to be told?
When I think about the bigger picture of writing, we each make a unique contribution when we put our stories out there. Some stories are comedies, and some are tragedies. This story has a little of both, along with a fair amount of hope and redemption. That all of this came out of a personal tragedy makes me appreciate how God works to bring good from all things. It reminds me of a film I recently watched starring Oprah Winfrey called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It’s about tumor tissue that became the basis of medical research. This tissue did so much to improve research and others’ lives that it seems to give purpose to the tumor in the first place. It feeds my soul to know that through telling the story of my family’s suffering, survival, and legacy, I am part of that continuum—and the journey continues.