Angela Ambrosia—a Lively Woman with a Deadly Disease—has Built a Life on Borrowed Time

updated 06/04/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/04/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In Erich Segal's Love Story leukemia put a tragic end to a love affair. For Angela Ambrosia and Ted Rubel, it was an unlikely beginning. Stricken at 16 with a rare form of the disease (chronic myelogenous) and given six months to live, Angela became part of a government-sponsored experimental treatment program which kept her in Manhattan's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center through most of her teenage years. At 19, she met Ted Rubel, a technician in the nuclear medicine department, and they began dating. One day they were sitting in his car and Angela said, "I am starting to fall in love with you. You can leave my life right now and I'll cry for a week. But if you are going to hang on just to leave me later on, don't bother. If you don't want any part of this, look for another girl." A few weeks later they decided to marry. Her doctor was horrified, her parents surprised.

"Why don't you give her the chance to be happy?" Ted asked Angela's mother, Ann. "Someday there may be a cure."

That was eight years ago. Of the 38 people in Angela's treatment program, only seven have survived. Angela was the first to lose the Philadelphia chromosome, the indicator of the disease, and for the moment (at age 27) she is medically stable but not cured. Her determined fight is told in Angela Ambrosia (Knopf, $7.95) by Ray Errol Fox.

Angela has achieved her present medical truce at an awful price. In the past 11 years she has undergone four major operations, twice lost her hair because of chemotherapy, had a miscarriage after a four-month pregnancy and is now addicted to the painkiller Darvon (she takes 12 a day). So much for the bad times. There have also been four years of remission (age 18 to 22), occasional satisfying jobs (the longest was six months as a dental assistant), and a vacation last summer in Florida sampling discotheques. "You can be happy even with cancer," says Ted, who at 31 is head of his department at the hospital. "A lot of people have problems. Cancer is something you just have to deal with."

Added to the physical ordeal, of course, have been many psychological adjustments to both the disease and marriage. Ted's parents—his mother survived a Nazi concentration camp, and his father, an electrician, escaped from the Warsaw ghetto—rejected Angela at first. "It wasn't the cancer," Ted recalls, "as much as that she wasn't Jewish." Angela's own Italian Catholic parents smothered her. "My family was babying me to death," she says. "I was frightened to walk around the corner by myself." Reminders of her disease cropped up everywhere. "One relative kept separate dishes when I visited her."

The newlyweds had their own troubles. "I would be vomiting my guts out," Angela remembers, "and Ted would say, 'I'm going for a walk.' He was immature and cold. He would start arguments for no reason. I finally threatened to leave him, and he cried and said, 'Please, I'll try to change.' " She now credits his strength with saving the marriage, and says about herself, "I have come from being a spoiled brat to what I hope is a halfway mature woman." (She is very conscious of her appearance. "I couldn't understand why Ted would want to go to bed with a skinny, ugly, bald woman," she recalls with a smile. "He said my head turned him on.")

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Angela was a sickly little girl. "I couldn't keep up with the other children," she notes. When she was finally told she had leukemia (her family kept it from her for three years), she was consumed with anger. "I screamed," she recalls. "I told the disease, 'Get out of my system. I don't want you!' Once, after having chemotherapy, I sat in a rocking chair and I rocked 100 miles an hour. It was like a scene from The Exorcist." Although a National Cancer Institute grant pays most of her bills, her steam-fitter father, Sam, has spent almost all his $55,000 life savings. Ted estimates his out-of-pocket expenses now are about $1,000 a year. He and Angela live in a four-room Riverdale apartment, and she is talking about adopting a child. "It seems unrealistic to wish for one of my own."

Promoting the book (criticized as "melodramatic" by Publishers Weekly) takes most of Angela's time these days. It is a grueling schedule, and she has been hospitalized once while on the tour. Yet she insists, "People have to be educated about cancer. A lot of those who are dealing with it are in the Dark Ages."

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