Annie Belasco, 34, from Windsor, is a PR manager for perinatal mental health charity PANDAS Foundation and author of Love & Remission.

Belasco was diagnosed with breast cancer in her twenties and thought undergoing treatment would be the toughest time of her life. Yet, it was after she finished treatment that her mental health nosedived dramatically.

Belasco explains how breast cancer left her with acute anxiety and how she has learnt to look after her mental health since.

Love and Remission: My Life, My Man, My Cancer

Love and Remission: My Life, My Man, My Cancer

Love and Remission: My Life, My Man, My Cancer

£12 at Amazon

How breast cancer left me with acute anxiety

Your twenties are for making plans, and mine were pretty ordinary. By 25, I knew I wanted to keep climbing the career ladder in recruitment, and I hoped to meet someone who made me laugh. A breast cancer diagnosis wasn’t on my list. But then it’s on no one’s list.

I was in the shower when I felt a lump on my right breast – solid, the size of a ping pong ball. It didn’t really worry me – I had no family history of the disease and I suppose I thought I was too young to have cancer. But 
I saw my GP, who referred me for a biopsy and mammogram, and in the meantime, I flew to Spain for a girls’ holiday.

So, I couldn’t have been less prepared when a few weeks later – alone and hungover – I was told by the oncologist it was ‘bad news’. My ping pong ball was stage-three breast cancer, and 
I had a 30% chance of survival.

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I entered a state of shock that would linger for years. I’d walked into that consultation room a confident young woman, and left it a scared little girl.

I felt separated from everyone I knew, and utterly alone in the world.

A gruelling course of chemo and radiotherapy followed. As fatigue and nausea engulfed me, I wondered why I’d ever moaned about a simple hangover.

I ached, I put on weight and my periods stopped. I had the skin of a teenager, and mouth ulcers made eating a daily challenge.

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Despite this, aside from moving home with my mum, I was adamant nothing would change. I kept working, only taking time off for hospital appointments and after chemo sessions.

When I pulled out clumps of my hair in a meeting one day, I just hid them under the table. I bought a wig, and started wearing it on nights out with my friends.

It wasn’t until the hospital visits thinned out that my mental health began to spiral.

After seven months of treatment, doctors told me the cancer had gone, but it would be years before I’d get the all-clear.

I felt like I was living in limbo. As gruelling as treatment had been, it had given me something to focus on. Without it, I felt more alone than ever.

I put on a brave face, but felt a constant undercurrent of panic at the thought of the cancer returning.

Opening an official letter would leave me sweating; even just waiting for a friend to call for a scheduled catch-up would leave me feeling desperately out of control.

Too afraid to confide in anyone in case I upset them, I felt consumed by my own mind.

At a routine appointment, my GP realised I was struggling, told me I was probably experiencing delayed trauma and diagnosed acute anxiety.

I started taking antidepressants and seeing a psychotherapist. Therapy helped me see that I hadn’t dealt with my diagnosis at the time – how do you deal with the news that you might not see your 26th birthday?

I developed coping strategies. Instead of fretting over things I couldn’t control, I began to manage those I could – such as adopting healthier habits.

Six years on, my mental health is stable, and I’m much better physically, too. I’m in remission, but have a yearly mammogram.

I still get episodes of acute anxiety, but I have a toolbox of tactics that help me. I’m vigilant about getting enough sleep, I rarely drink, and I try to be as open as I can with friends and family.

It helps that I’m in a great place in my life. I met Sam, my husband, while undergoing treatment, and we now have two children, aged four and one.

When you’re coping with a physical illness, getting well is the priority. But the impact doesn’t end with an ‘all-clear’. Unless you look after your mind as well as your body, it can mark the start of something even scarier.

What are the mental health risks of a cancer diagnosis?

According to Dr Sarah Vohra, consultant psychiatrist and author @themindmedic, being diagnosed with a life- threatening condition such as cancer is traumatic and can stir up a rollercoaster of emotions, from grief triggered by a shock diagnosis to anger and despair over the impact it will have on your life and those around you.

These feelings may persist longer than you’d expect, and can lead to anxiety or depression.

This can have a huge impact on your ability to function in your personal life and at work. Some may develop PTSD symptoms that require psychological treatment, or even medication, to manage their symptoms.

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