When Ani was diagnosed with cancer, she had two questions for the doctors: 'What are my chances of survival?' and 'Can you treat me in two months, because I need to go to Oxford?'. Ani had a scholarship and was ready to start her MBA.
She says she remembers the look on her doctor’s face when he looked at her test results—he told her that her cancer was aggressive and that she had to be patient. She contacted Oxford’s Saïd Business School and was granted a deferral for her MBA to give her time for treatment.
“Even as child, I never liked to give up. When I fail, I admit that I failed, but I never give up. I told myself I would find a way to learn from this experience. And that later I will apply this knowledge to help people," she says.
In Armenia, there are no insurance plans for cancer treatment, and treatment is extremely expensive. Even with two good jobs, and savings, Ani battled to raise the $60k she needed for treatment. Her friends finally convinced her to agree to a fundraising campaign.
On the campaign page, they showed a picture of her smiling. “The message was that I have this problem”, says Ani, “but I am going to beat it. There is so much light, strength and hope in me.” Within a day, everyone in Armenia was talking about her case.
The campaign raised $5k within a day and $20k within a week. “People were so engaged because they believed in me. My battle against cancer was not only mine—it was a battle of thousands of people who had their own stories," Ani says. TV channels and journalists told Ani’s story and other cancer patients and their families sent Ani hundreds of messages a week.
After chemotherapy, Ani lost her hair and her face was changed. She remembers walking into a bank and having the bank manager avoid her. “She didn’t acknowledge me. She saw that I was sick and walked away," Ani recalls. "That was an interesting experience. I felt the problem was not in me but in society."
Ani decided at that moment to break the stereotype in Armenia. She spoke to her friends and they came up with a photography project to show cancer in a different light. In Armenia, cancer was seen as the end of someone’s life—a point from which they could never be happy or normal again. Ani wanted to change this.
"Everything was so colourful in my life. I wanted to show light, beauty, strength and hope," Ani explains. She was photographed without hair, with no makeup, and with a huge smile on her face. The campaign was a great success.
A defining moment for Ani on her cancer battle was the moment she found out that a 20-year-old woman she had been in touch with had passed away from lung cancer. Ani was in bed, recovering from surgery. She promised herself that she would start working on a foundation to improve healthcare for cancer patients in Armenia.
Ani registered the Ani Haykuni Cancer Treatment Support Foundation a year after her diagnosis, and before leaving for Saïd Business School. The aim of the foundation is to provide financial and psychological support to cancer patients in Armenia, and, ultimately, to save as many lives as possible.
Ani’s decision to continue treatment in Oxford was risky—she would have to leave her support network and her doctors and travel alone to a new country, with a different healthcare system.
This was a journey she says she had to go on by herself. "Cancer showed me that if you want to do something, you should do it," Ani stresses. "Not in a year, not in two years. If you have a goal, you have to go for it. You never know what is going to happen tomorrow. Having regrets is the worst thing that can happen to someone.”
Ani successfully completed her MBA while fighting for her life, but knew that she could only do it if she completely avoided stress. Her task was to do her best, and to stay alive.
“I prepared myself to know my priorities. It’s all about priorities and spending time and attention on what is important to you," Ani explains. "If you have that big picture, you can learn to challenge yourself without any stress. It’s very philosophical. You’ve just got to be ready and manage your mind.”
Ani said she knew she’d meet many people that wouldn’t understand her. Like most MBA students, some of Ani’s classmates were concerned with careers, salary, and deadlines. These things were not important to her. In the moment of her diagnosis, Ani's values had changed.
Life without cancer
It took a few months for Ani’s mind to start to recover from the brain fog that comes with chemotherapy. She would miss classes once every three weeks to go into hospital for treatment and had a daily regime of medication that often left her fatigued. Saïd supported her by recording the lectures she couldn’t make, but Ani wanted to feel as normal as possible.
Ani and some of her classmates worked on the initial planning for her foundation for their entrepreneurship project. Ani also gained the knowledge she needed to work on her clean energy startup VORDAN. She is currently working on VORDAN in the UK and is cancer-free, but receiving treatment to make sure it doesn’t come back.
Reflecting on her journey, Ani says cancer is one of the greatest teachers she will ever have. “Cancer helped me understand my mission. I love to help people. That’s what’s important to me," she says.
"It’s not about material things: money, or a great job. When my time comes to leave this world, I want to have really inked my story. I don’t want to have any regrets.”
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