Being given the all clear from cancer fuelled Annie Belasco’s mental turmoil – feeling vulnerable and unprotected back out in the real world, void of regular check-ups with doctors. But in disconnecting, Annie reconnected with her mental health and found peace
At the age of 25, I was diagnosed with Grade 3 breast cancer. The cruel disease had spread to all but two of my lymph nodes, and I was given just a 30% chance of survival. My body image was ruined, my hair fell out, and my confidence was banished. Annie was gone and “cancer patient” had arrived.
I had never thought about my mental health. “She’s mad,” we would say, as an insult. “I’m a psycho,” I would say about my spontaneous decisions. But nothing would prepare me for starting to understand the real meaning of emotional madness and psychotic episodes. And that using mental illness as an insult could not be any more ignorant or unkind.
After going through five years of cancer treatment, having my body taken apart and then bodged back together again, what was left inside my head was an empty hole. I had officially lost my mind.
I was told I was clear from cancer, and my world fell apart. It felt crazy, uncontrollable, and unsafe.
“Annie! You’re free from cancer, you should be happy,” everyone said. But this was when my mental health was at its worst. I looked forward to appointments about my physical treatment because I felt cared for. I welcomed letters reminding me about check-ups and blood tests. But when the hospital discharged me, I felt completely alone and depressed. My anxiety had become debilitating, to the point where I considered making myself psychically ill just to be looked after.
I met my partner, Sam, while going through cancer. Extraordinary true love, we call it. My confidence was at its lowest, but this was overridden by my determination to live. Meeting Sam gave me purpose. Our relationship blossomed, and I fled the nest of my family home. Sam and I moved in together, like two turtle doves. I finally felt full of happiness. Our love and friendship was tested at every hurdle imaginable. Life was fast-paced, loud and chaotic. But we survived. Through the cancer, two pregnancies, and a large dose of hell and back.
Disease-free and let out of a cage, I was told I could fly. But I didn’t want to even try. I wanted to be cooped like a chicken in a hutch, without free range. I longed to be back in the arms of the NHS, to feel monitored and important, just in case things went wrong again.
I had no appointments, and few people outside of my own nest to talk to. I felt alone, worried, helpless and started developing obsessive compulsive behaviours.
I had ruminations going around and round my head, controlling my thought process. “What if… What if… What if” was like a flashing red light. But the bulb never ran out, and I learned to live with it.
My aggressive anxiety travelled with me in the car: “What if I crash and die?” So, I stopped driving. My angry anxiety followed me through my wedding day: “What if my fiancé doesn’t turn up?” So I spoke to him, against my wishes, the night before. And my ambitious anxiety followed me through both pregnancies: “What if they don’t make it?” I increased my antidepressants while pregnant. I had to fix and delete the anxiety, which meant I would make quick, irrational decisions.
My dark thoughts were extreme and shocking, especially when I tried to explain them. And sometimes I felt so overwhelmed and exhausted by the horrid thoughts that I would scream out loud – but only when no one could hear. I knew I had to “hold it together” in front of people, so they didn’t think I was “mad”. I always took pride in my appearance. I wore nice clothes, looked after my hair and skin, as I knew I should appreciate and care for them after losing both during chemotherapy. I also knew what words to use, and how to say them.
From the outside, I would be composed and considerate. But inside, I felt I was dying. It wasn’t pleasant. It was deep, desperate depression. My head became a small circus.
It played tricks on me. I would be happily involved in a task or activity and then suddenly the anxiety and fear would jump out in front of me, like a “baddy” in a pantomime, with the audience screaming at me: “It’s behind you!”
I had two years of intensive psychotherapy, medication, and almost weekly check-ups to monitor my mood. I hated the clock on the wall and I didn’t wear a watch. I had a phobia of my phone; the ring made me alert and aggressive, so I turned my phone off. I wanted to feel undisturbed and in control. And just like that, I started to make my own choices again.
Over time, I learned further coping mechanisms to support my recovery. I learned to say “no” to unwelcome invitations. I wouldn’t try to please people. I was determined to put my mental health first.
I started to look for, and experience, peace. Walking in the countryside, listening to the smallest sounds. Twigs breaking as we walked through the forest. The scuffling sound of a squirrel in a tree. And watching seasons change on the leaves of huge, dark oak trees in the park. Peace. I started to appreciate the things that I had previously not given the time of day.
Friendship, talking, the weather. One of the most calming experiences I enjoy is listening to the rain. In the car, in my house, or walking through it with my children, seeing how many puddles we can jump in. And birds are always there, flying.
Wellbeing in my own household has the highest impact on my mental health. My anxiety always follows me around, but I have learned how to manage it. There doesn’t always need to be an activity, or a noise, for me to feel alive.
When we have had a busy day, we turn down all sensory triggers – the TV, our phones, even the doorbell. I use blowing bubbles to calm my children’s tears, and we go to bed before exhaustion ever hits. I use lavender oil in the children’s baths, and in all our bedrooms. And we try, even when we have had a bad day, to talk about how we feel.
The passport to my healthy new mind, is to reduce chaos, increase calm, and have our own space. So, when we have a bad day, we all have our own nests to go back to, with peace.
Annie’s story is a potent account of the way physical illness can erode and damage our sense of who we are. Annie has found a path to recovery by reconnecting in the here and now, by honouring the simple, immediate connections that are always available to us. It is heartening to hear how her way of thriving is shared with her family; what a phenomenal example of post-traumatic growth.