October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In the UK, one woman every eight minutes is diagnosed with breast cancer. That’s why Asda’s Tickled Pink campaign uniquely supports the work of two leading breast cancer charities; Breast Cancer Now and Breast Cancer Care; to fund life-saving research and offer life-changing support, to ensure anyone affected by breast cancer lives, and lives life well, now and in the future. Here's Annie's story.
When Annie Belasco was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer at 25, she was given a 30% chance of survival.
"I was a 25-year-old partying, single, career-flying girl living in London hopelessly living an unhealthy lifestyle,” says Annie. “I went into that doctor’s appointment thinking they'd say I was fine. I never thought in a million years that they'd say 'this is what it is. This is the extent of what's it's done.' I didn't even know what a mastectomy was.”
But rather than getting bogged down with the immense weight of the disease, Annie decided to embrace life and everything it had to throw at her. This is what her memoir, Love and Remission, is all about.
“The book is an empowering, inspirational piece of writing that isn't really similar to anything already out there as a cancer memoir. This book isn't really about cancer - it's about how I went head-on with trauma and how I coped with my diagnosis by experiencing as much joy as I could whilst I was going through it.
“My book has been described as Bridget Jones meets cancer,” laughs Annie. “It's funny, honest and very positive - it's not a sob-story, nor is it self-congratulatory. It talks about the challenges of being a 25-year-old woman trying to keep up appearances. Literally.”
Annie before her diagnosis.
And that's exactly what happens through the course of the book; rather than focusing on her illness and spending her time researching survival statistics and other people’s cancer stories, Annie focused on the things that helped her to feel herself – her job, make-up and wig styles and internet dating.
“I wasn't aware of how aggressive the cancer was or how nasty the treatment was going to be,” reflects Annie. “It was bliss not to know - I wasn't even thinking about it.”
Referring to Love and Remission, Annie says, “I don't go into huge detail about some of the treatments and how awful they were. I talk about what I did as they were going on in the background. I talk about working through cancer, and moving back in with my mum and losing my independence, but then going out at night so I felt like I could gain it back, and internet dating and make-up and all the things that kept me occupied so that I wasn’t defined by my illness. I think that’s really important when you have any diagnosis - whether it's a toothache or cancer - that you're still you. You're still that person - and that comes first.”
Looking back at her initial diagnosis, Annie says: “Cancer definitely made me rethink all of my priorities. While I tried to stay as optimistic as I could, I was still worried about my future as a young woman. While all my friends were going out and meeting partners and having children, I was worried about my career and my love life. My priorities switched from partying and drinking to thinking about what I really wanted out of life.
Shortly after her diagnosis, Annie set up an internet dating profile in order to meet men and focus her mind on the possible opportunities she still had.
"It was a good distraction and it instantly rebooted my confidence,” says Annie. “I was able to sit behind my laptop in a dressing gown, no wig, emailing men, getting replies and feeling great. I could tell these men all about my life apart from possibly the most significant point - that I could be dying.
"It sounds appalling,” reflects Annie, “but it didn’t feel relevant because I wasn't taking it seriously - and I definitely didn't think I was going to meet my husband online. I got to the last day of my chemotherapy, and I'd been talking to this guy for a couple of months about what we both wanted from life and how we wanted the same. He suggested meeting up the day after my last chemotherapy session, and I remember thinking 'I cannot do this'."
Annie at her hen-do
Annie says, "I was so worried that he'd notice that I was wearing a wig because I hadn't told him that I was going through cancer treatment, but he made me feel so comfortable that within hours of meeting I told him. It didn't faze him whatsoever, and that helped me. I was going through this awful treatment and cancer journey but inside I felt so positive and so good about myself and so connected to this guy that it was more than just a distraction - it was my new way of life. I was so happy going to radiotherapy and all the rest of it, because I felt happy and at peace.”
Now, Annie and her husband have two healthy children that they conceived naturally – something Annie was convinced would never have been possible post-treatment. "When I had my first child in 2014, it was like a miracle for us. I was told that we'd have absolutely zero chance of conceiving and we were on the waiting list for IVF treatment following the preservation of my eggs."
Nine years on from being given the all clear, Annie wrote Love and Remission as a source of comfort to anyone going through cancer treatment and their friends and family. Annie wants the book to be a reminder to take self-care seriously – especially due to the strain that cancer can have on a person’s mental health; an issue that Annie knows all too well.
“5 years on from my diagnosis, I was given the all-clear. But rather than relief, I felt very isolated, alone and forgotten,” says Annie. “I had a terrible mental breakdown where I was convinced that this cancer was going to come back and get me - and that was because I didn't deal with it mentally at the time.
"My book is a positive message for those affected by cancer to embrace life, but I also want to raise the importance of taking the time to acknowledge how we feel, so it doesn't catch up with us later. Now, I've got a crippling anxiety disorder as a result of only staring the psychological effects of cancer in the face after the events took place.
"It took me a long time to reflect on what I'd been through - and, as a family, we're still doing that nine years after my diagnosis. Writing my book after nine years was a huge relief.”
Annie gave up her job in recruitment while pregnant with her first born. Now, Annie continues to campaign for breast cancer research funding through talks and conferences (Annie was the lead speaker at our Tickled Pink event last October), as well as campaigning for the importance of psychological support for cancer patients and their families.
Annie at Asda's Tickled Pink event in October 2017.
"I think it's really important that, as a nation, we're constantly talking about mental health. I would always suggest that, at diagnosis you ask to be referred for psychotherapy - which you're entitled to,” says Annie.
“That's the one and only criticism I would have from my own experience; the NHS were brilliant but there was no mental health support. I didn't have a clue what was going on. I think it's really important, there and then, to have a separate meeting after you have your diagnosis to have a sit down with a psychotherapist and digest and discuss what's just happened.
“The mental health side of cancer is almost as important as the physical side. You have to be in the right mindset to be headstrong and to focus on getting out and living a life with cancer. You're not a write-off if you've been diagnosed with cancer. It's about having the right coaching mentally. This is what I do now - I speak, write and work with people - to show that you can live well when going through cancer with the right mental health support.”
“Everyone's experience is different, but by focusing on myself rather than the battle I was about to face, I could own my disease.”
Annie’s book Love and Remission is out now.