Aged 14, Cassandra Hili should have been trying on sparkling ball gowns for her end-of-year school formal.
But as her friends picked out stylish frocks and worried about finding a date, doctors delivered the 100kg teenager a bombshell.
‘My doctor told me that if I kept piling on weight that I wouldn’t be alive to attend my end-of-year formal,’ Cassandra, now 23, tells New Idea.
‘He just said: “You’re big, you’re heavy, you’re unhealthy – if you keep going this way, you will be dead within two years.”’
Cassandra recalls the tears that fell down her face as she received the terrifying news.
‘But at that point, I just didn’t care anymore because I was so depressed and had stopped taking care of myself,’ she remembers.
‘I wore the same thing every day because it was comfortable, and I never went out and socialised because I hated my body.’
Cassandra was addicted to carbs – bingeing on chips, toast and pasta daily.
The morbidly obese teen suffered from high blood pressure and cholesterol – putting her at risk of a fatal heart attack at any moment.
In addition, Cassandra, from NSW, had been diagnosed with insulin resistance at the age of eight – making it harder for her to burn fat and lose weight.
But despite being given a death sentence, Cassandra admits at first she was ‘too stubborn’ to listen and instead sought solace in food.
By 16 years of age, she had ballooned to 117kg and was wearing a size 20 to 22.
‘When I was younger, I never really had a problem with eating unhealthy food, I just had trouble with portion control and would always eat way too many carbohydrates,’ she reveals.
‘Coming from an Italian and Maltese family, our house was always filled with delicious and gorgeous fresh food because it is so central to our culture.
‘But after that doctor’s visit, I just decided to give up and do what I wanted because I was sick of everyone always telling me what to do.
‘Depression got the best of me and food became my safety net. I would eat loads of unhealthy junk food because I thought it would make me feel better.’
Cassandra says she was severely bullied for being obese, which diminished her self-esteem and propelled her into a dark hole of anxiety, depression and obsessive binge eating.
‘The bigger I got, the more my uniform didn’t fit properly, and as it became tighter and tighter, people started to notice,’ she reveals.
‘I struggled to even walk to the bus stop, and people would ask me why I was so out of breath.
‘Girls would say: “Your uniform’s really tight, why don’t you get a new one?” or “You should probably start exercising and stop eating junk food.”
‘It was really hard. I was lonely, sad and angry at the world. I held lots of resentment.’
Her weight gain continued, until a life-saving revelation occurred shortly before her 17th birthday.
She had been watching her favourite singer Christina Aguilera perform in the 2010 movie Burlesque.
‘At the time, my big dream was to be a professional singer,’ Cassandra says. ‘I was in love with the way Christina performed and the way she moved. I wanted to be her, but I knew that would never happen because I was so obese.
‘That was my light-bulb moment, and after that I was determined to lose the weight.’
Cassandra’s first focus was on the food she consumed.
‘I cut down sugars and carbs, and started eating lots more healthy protein, fruits and vegetables,’ she recalls. ‘Then I started walking on the treadmill.’
Starting with just a few minutes a day, Cassandra built up her fitness over time to a point where she could run for nearly half an hour without stopping.
‘I worked really hard every day and just never gave up,’ she says. ‘The weight started dropping off, but it was a slow process, so I’d get quite frustrated at times.’
In two years, her determination paid off – with Cassandra dropping 55kg.
She now weighs 62kg and has ditched her size 22 clothes for size eight ones instead.
She is also the proud owner of her own PR company.
‘I never could have achieved what I have today without losing the weight,’ Cassandra admits.
‘My life has changed dramatically. I’m more confident, strong and determined than ever before.
‘Although it was some of the worst times of my life, I’m thankful it has moulded me into the person I am today.
‘It helped me be more understanding of others and to always treat people kindly, because you never know what they’re going through at home.’
Cassandra adds: ‘At the end of the day, this is your life, you only get one, and you need to live it as your best self.’