Chance Encounters

They fell in love in Mexico in 1981. Four months later she was diagnosed with cancer

Francesca Street, CNNPublished 29th September 2022
(CNN) — Annie MacDonald was waiting in a long line at a small bank in the coastal city of Zihuatanejo, Mexico when she first laid eyes on Steven Berger.
It was March 1981, St Patrick's Day. Annie, in her mid-20s and hailing from Ottawa, Canada, was finishing up a three-week adventure around Mexico, traveling with her friend Ellen.
As it happened, Annie wasn't supposed to be in Zihuatanejo that day. Ellen had traveled on to Mexico City, but Annie wasn't feeling well, so she'd decided to stay in the beachside spot for a few days longer.
Steven, an American middle school teacher in his early 30s, was on a solo trip, visiting from Denver, Colorado.
"Steven has long joked that he thought I was attracted to him and began talking to him because he was exchanging American dollars at the bank -- which were worth so much more than Canadian dollars," says Annie, laughing.
This wasn't the case, she insists -- besides, it was Steven who initiated the conversation.
"There was this really cute, hot girl, about three people in line in front of me, and she was wearing this dress that looked a little bit like it could be from Afghanistan, where I had just been," Steven tells CNN Travel. "Now this could be revisionist history, of course. But I remember saying something like, 'Oh, is that from Afghanistan?' And then the rest is history."
"Steven was wearing a navy velour T-shirt," adds Annie. "Not exactly a fashion statement, as he'd freely admit."
Annie's long, orange caftan wasn't from Afghanistan, but Steven's question got the two talking about their travels, and what had brought them to Zihuatanejo.
"We were just kindred spirits right from the beginning," says Annie.
Almost without realizing, the two strangers ended up spending the whole day together, swimming in the clear seas, relaxing on Zihuatanejo's sandy beaches, and chatting in between dips.
Annie had four days before she was set to reunite with Ellen and fly home. She and Steven spent every day together, relaxing and chatting on the beaches and occasionally sneaking into a swanky resort in nearby Ixtapa to lounge by the pool.
It was, Annie says, "a whirlwind romance."
She remembers feeling "euphoric." Steven says he was "ecstatic."
But although Annie was swept up in the excitement of falling for Steven, she still felt out of sorts physically.
In between their beach visits, Annie and Steven would hunt out lime Jell-O, hoping it would settle Annie's stomach.
"Steven and I had lots of time to chat as we wandered from one tiny neighborhood shop to another," says Annie.
On these walks, the two talked about "everything."
"It seems inconceivable now, but we also talked seriously about either his moving to Ottawa or my relocating to Denver," Annie adds.
The four days came to an end and Annie was due to fly home. As they said their goodbyes, Steven gave Annie a parting gift -- a gold chain he'd bought during a stint teaching in Iran. She immediately put it around her neck.

A diagnosis

Annie and Steven fell in love over four days in Mexico.
Annie and Steven fell in love over four days in Mexico.
Annie and Steven Berger
Back in Canada, Annie regaled her family and friends with stories of Steven.
"Of course, they all thought I was crazy and that nothing could possibly come of this romance," recalls Annie.
Still plagued by the symptoms that had bothered her in Zihuatanejo, Annie also booked a check up at the doctors. She ended up admitted to hospital and diagnosed with non-A, non-B hepatitis.
The treatment plan was straightforward, but the doctors had further concerns.
"While I was in the hospital, I developed -- or the staff noticed -- a lump on the left side of my neck which wasn't consistent with the hepatitis diagnosis," says Annie.
The medical team wanted to investigate the lump further, but Annie wasn't worried.
"I was quite frankly blissfully unaware," she says. "Or in a state of denial."
Instead, Annie's focus was on an upcoming business trip to Alberta, Canada.
"I was thrilled as I was able to take a few extra days and fly down to Denver to visit Steven, to see if there was really anything to this whirlwind romance," says Annie.
"It felt wonderful to reconnect," says Steven of their Denver reunion. "But it never felt to me we were apart."
Since parting in Mexico, the couple had spoken regularly on the phone and sent cards and letters through the mail.
For Annie and Steven, the reunion made it clear their connection was more than just a vacation romance. But Steven was worried about the lump on Annie's neck. Although Annie figured it was nothing, Steven felt certain it didn't spell good news.
A month later, on her 27th birthday, Annie was diagnosed with stage three non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a form of cancer.
With Annie confined to a hospital bed, Annie's mother rang Steven to tell him the news.
"We're going to be in this together," Steven told Annie when they were eventually able to speak directly. "We're crazy in love."
Steven says his approach was -- and is -- to be in the moment, whatever its challenges.
"I didn't really think, 'I wish it were this and not that,'" he explains. "My philosophy was to accept the situation and go on from there."
Still, Annie's diagnosis was upsetting. After he received the phone call from Annie's mother, Steven went on a drive, alone, and cried.
Steven and Annie, pictured here in September 1981, navigated Annie's illness together.
Steven and Annie, pictured here in September 1981, navigated Annie's illness together.
Annie and Steven Berger
Annie was given a leave of absence from her job for the rest of the summer so she could navigate her chemotherapy treatments, which took place every three weeks, and the side effects.
Steven visited Ottawa as soon as he could, on July 4. Over the course of a long weekend, Steven met Annie's family and friends for the first time.
It was a trip both surreal and special. Annie planned several dinner parties -- "if he's going to come, I'm going to introduce him to everybody," she remembers thinking.
"All four of her brothers approved of me," says Steven.
"That also happened to be the time when my hair began falling out in clumps from the chemotherapy I'd started, but he took it like a champ and didn't mind the wig I now needed to wear all the time," says Annie.
Annie knew she and Steven had become serious very quickly. Perhaps, she thought, this wasn't a "normal" progression of romance.
But Annie felt that her life was no longer "normal" anyway. And her friends and family were delighted at how happy Steven made her, and very appreciative of his unwavering support.
"All they were concerned about, quite frankly, was that I would survive the cancer and be okay," says Annie. "For [my friends] and for my family and for myself, that meant having Steven in the picture. He was part and parcel of my survival, effectively."

Navigating illness and long distance

A month later, in August 1982, Annie traveled to Denver, squeezing in the trip in between chemotherapy cycles.
"However, the day I was supposed to fly [back to Canada] the American air traffic controllers went out on strike, leaving me stranded," she recalls.
Fortunately, Annie was able to arrange a last minute chemo session at the hospital in Denver.
Steven, who'd supported Annie from afar during earlier treatment cycles, now had a front row seat to the realities of chemotherapy.
"If I, my parents, family, and friends had any doubt what a prince Steven was, his being at my side for the next 36 hours while dealing with the nasty side effects of the chemo sealed it for all of us," says Annie.
Afterward, Annie and Steven road-tripped to Ottawa together, camping in tents along the way.
Annie and Steven say it was simply "obvious," that they would get married. There was no formal proposal, and Annie picked out her own ring.
While Annie's loved ones wholeheartedly supported her engagement to Steven, Steven's family had hesitations.
"Not only did I have the Big C, cancer, but I was also Catholic and Canadian, not exactly a winning combination to his Jewish family," says Annie.
Steven says his parents were mostly concerned about their son's wellbeing.
"They saw it as -- you're going to marry somebody who might die in the next six months," he says.
Steven and Annie on their wedding day in February 1982.
Steven and Annie on their wedding day in February 1982.
Couvrette Photography Ottawa
In time, Steven's family came round. As they got to know Annie, they understood how important she was to their son.
"I had a warm and loving relationship with them," says Annie. "I give them kudos for that. Because I know that was not easy for them, not easy at all -- it was a tough situation."
Annie's final chemotherapy treatment was in December 1981. A couple of months later, in February 1982 -- less than a year after meeting in Mexico -- Annie and Steven got married in a small ceremony, surrounded by family and friends. Annie took Steven's name, becoming Annie Berger.
Annie's friend Lezlie found her a long silk headband, which teamed with her wig, made Annie feel amazing.
"It looked perfect," she says.
"She looked beautiful," agrees Steven.
The couple honeymooned in Zihuatanejo, traveling there in March 1982, almost a year to the day after they'd first met in the line at the bank.

Putting down roots

After the wedding, Annie moved to Denver with Steven. The couple started putting down roots in Colorado.
Annie was able to start working again, as she was no longer receiving treatment, but she had yet to receive the all clear, and wouldn't for some time.
"Because my specific cancer and the staging of it was such a serious diagnosis at that time, I would be given the all clear if I made it to the three-year mark," explains Annie. "I was told if I had a relapse in that period, it would likely be fatal."
While this grim reality remained at the back of their minds, Annie and Steven focused on enjoying the present.
"That concern was always there," says Annie. "But we are both very upbeat people, I would say, very positive, and so it's not like that controlled our thinking, or our day to day lives, or anything like that."
"I think the biggest thing was, could we have children?" says Steven.
This remained a question mark until 1984, when Annie learned she was expecting a child.
Annie and Steven welcomed their daughter, Nina, in 1985.
Even today, the couple call Nina their "miracle baby." They went on to have three more children: Natalie, Alexander and Zachary.
Steven and Annie passed on a love of adventure and travel to all four kids.
The Berger family didn't have the means to travel overseas when the children were young, but they enjoyed camping and road tripping across the US. Annie and Steven have fond memories of these adventures.
"Every summer, we'd pack up the kids -- first one child, then two children, three, then four," recalls Steven.
Time went on, the children grew, and Annie's cancer didn't return.
"There have been a couple of scares in that regard," Annie says. "But luckily, no further cancer diagnosis, so incredibly fortunate."

Renewing their love of travel

Steven in Annie at Uluru, during a visit to Australia in 2015.
Steven in Annie at Uluru, during a visit to Australia in 2015.
Annie and Steven Berger
By 2013, Annie and Steven were retired. Their children had left home to embark on their own adventures.
After years spent mostly vacationing in North America, the couple decided it was time to start exploring the other destinations they'd always wanted to visit.
They kicked their adventures off with a two month trip on the Trans-Siberian railway, traveling across Russia, Mongolia, and China, before continuing on to Thailand and Cambodia.
Since then, Annie and Steven have visited 95 countries and counting. Today, the couple travel for much of the year, and when they're back home in the US, they focus on volunteering projects.
Annie and Steven, pictured here at Machu Picchu, celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary this year.
Annie and Steven, pictured here at Machu Picchu, celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary this year.
Annie and Steven Berger
This year, Annie and Steven celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary and found themselves reflecting on their chance meeting that day in Zihuatanejo.
Steven says that meeting Annie was "a miracle" and "the most amazing thing that's ever happened" to him.
He adds that the key to a long and happy marriage is "not just loving someone but liking them, and spending time with them."
Annie says meeting Steven was "what dreams are made of."
"Telling our story doesn't sound real as it's so far-fetched and is more like a Hallmark movie," she says, adding that she still has the gold chain Steven gave her in Zihuatanejo.
"I have been wearing that chain day and night for the last 41 years."
Annie and Steven also believe navigating Annie's health issues that first year set the tone for how they handled life's ups and downs in subsequent years.
"One of the testaments of our relationship is that we roll with things," says Annie. "We did it then, and we do it to this day, 40-plus years later. Things happen, you figure out a way to deal with them, and then you go on."
The couple's motto has remained the same throughout the decades: "Just go for it."
"Life's too short not to," says Annie.