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Annie Spokes

Annie Spokes is a PhD student, a teaching fellow, and a resident tutor in Leverett House. In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Her Campus reached out to Annie, a recent breast cancer survivor, to discuss her battle with cancer, her life as a tutor, and her advice for getting through difficult phases in life. First, we’d like to share some glowing testiments to Annie’s character from those closest to her.

 “Annie is not only hilarious, caring and witty, she is also one of the toughest people I know. One of the silver linings of battling breast cancer myself was meeting her and being able to go through treatment together. Having her as a resource and friend throughout it all made such a difference. I feel so lucky and grateful to have her in my life!”

     Julie, Annie’s close friend

“I wish I had met this beautiful woman many years ago. Annie’s positive attitude, genuine personality and lovable self, gave me strength. When I first met Annie, unfortunately it was during a difficult time in our lives; we were receiving chemotherapy, due to breast cancer. Meeting Annie when I did, was a blessing and I will forever be grateful for her friendship. Annie is an inspiration to many and in my eyes she is a symbol of STRENGTH.”

     Irkania, Annie’s close friend

“The best indication of how fantastic I think Annie is, is the fact that I want to spend the rest of my life with her. One of my favorite Annie traits is that she puts other people first. It’s one of the many reasons she makes such a great resident tutor, advisor and teacher. Her loving, caring nature has a huge positive influence on many people. She makes ME want to be the very best version of myself, and I grow every day because of it. Even in some of the darkest days, she was less worried about herself than about how to throw the best study break for students or how to improve the material for her next section!”

     Will, Annie’s fiancé

As those who know her clearly agree, Annie Spokes is brilliant in every sense of the word. A Yale graduate who originally comes from Overland Park, Kansas, Annie is now in the process of completing a PhD in psychology and cognitive science here at Harvard. “People always ask why I came to the dark side,” she laughs. But she admits in our interview that Harvard isn’t so bad. “It would be awesome to be an undergraduate here,” she gushes. “As a resident tutor, it’s awesome to get in touch with Harvard students and see all of things you’re up to – you’re amazing.”

In all honesty, ‘getting in touch’ is an understatement considering how involved Annie is. She and her fiancé Will, also a resident tutor in Leverett, make a point to show up to their students’ games, performances, recitals, and any other event that they can squeeze into their schedules. She functions as much as a source of support and guidance as she does encouragement and cheer.

“I’m a people person, so I’m passionate about that part of my job … being a tutor has been a great role for me to get to know people and students. I enjoy going to these events. I don’t see it as job, it’s more something I enjoy doing anyway. I’m passionate about getting to know people and seeing them pursue their passions. So, it happens naturally.”

Outside of these traditional classroom and house settings, Annie also connects with others through her love of sports. A former soccer star turned intramural star, she has demonstrated an impressive amount of spirit by participating in inter-house games as well as playing soccer through a graduate school program. After providing an extensive and impressive list of other activities and pastimes in which she is both interested and involved, she pauses and smiles – “I actually met my fiancé playing soccer at Harvard [laughs] – so being active is a really big part of my life.” At this point, one must conclude that she does it all. Whether discussing her fascinating research on non-human primates or her love of crossword puzzles, her excitement shines through her eyes.

Another exciting element of her life is the planning of her wedding, now only months away – she even has a dress fitting later this afternoon. Her fiancé, Will, is also a resident tutor and a graduate student in the physics department. By the time the current class of seniors graduate, they will have had the pleasure of seeing Leverett’s favorite tutor couple go from dating to engaged to married, all in their three years in the house. It is a beautiful happily ever after, but an unusual one given all they have gone through together – all that Annie has gone through.

Annie was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015. She is the third in her nuclear family to have cancer, having lost her father to the disease years prior. Facing months of treatment, she decided to continue tutoring and studying throughout her battle. Having officially finished treatment over a year ago, her strawberry hair growing thickly into a stylish and sleek bob, Annie reflects back on her time with relief and looks toward the future with excitement.

“The last two years have been an adventure, as you know. 2015 was really my treatment year, and so 2016 has been more about going to friend’s weddings, feeling good again, planning my own wedding, going forward with…life. Being on the other side of this journey – and being a survivor now, I guess they call it – has been really, really great. Moving past the journey of last year has been a big step. It’s nice being a part of supporting others in the network, too.”

Having just walked in the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer event with Julie and Irkania, two friends and fellow survivors – and currently decked out in her pink ribbon pin, bracelet, and sash – it is apparent that something as unimaginably taxing and terrifying as having breast cancer has positively resulted in her commitment to raising awareness. Annie discovered her cancer herself, and now advocates strongly for women of all ages to be more aware and careful with their bodies. “You know your body better than anyone else, be really aware of your health and your body,” she repeats throughout the conversation. She makes light of how useful and significant her advice is, sharing, “Now I find myself talking about boobs all the time! So that’s one bonus [to having had cancer].”

The glass is still somehow half full. She is here and happy and full of life, and I just wonder how she manages to emerge with such beautifully optimistic perspective. Her answer to this query is immediate and confident: family. As she warmly recounts how they took care of and encouraged her through her battle, tears well into her lower lids. Despite my attempts, tears form in my eyes as well. She says that family is everything to her, and it becomes so visibly, tangibly true in the way she speaks of them. “If you’re going to go up against anything hard in life, you don’t have to do it alone.” And she didn’t. The support of her mother, four siblings, friends, and Will ensured she would never be without help. I begin to wonder, perhaps her extraordinarily loving family is the source of her unique brand of benevolence.

“Lots of people are survivors of something, there are a lot of ways we can be supporting each other.”

Or, perhaps Annie is just innately good. That seems just as likely.

Ultimately, Annie bravely battled breast cancer while continuing to be the guiding light and support to others. Selfless and strong, and yet still unimaginably humble, Annie lives her life with optimism and purpose and it is demonstrated in every word and action. Before we concluded the interview, she offered advice that may change one’s view of life. It certainly has changed mine.

“When something hard happens, a lot of people ask, ‘Why me?’ and I think my parents set a great example in that they asked, ‘Why not me?’

As women, we are stronger than we think we are. Why not you? You can handle it.”


Kat is a senior at Harvard concentrating in Social Anthropology. She's an a cappella nerd, a hip hop dancer, and a lover of any and all Mexican food.
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