Anna Wassman, a senior at Loyola University Chicago, was set to graduate in two months, and planning her post-graduation trip when she noticed a lump in her right breast. The lump didn’t go away after a few days, so she underwent an ultrasound and a biopsy. On March 1, the then-25-year-old was diagnosed with stage II HER2-positive breast cancer.
“At the time of my diagnosis, I was honestly the most worried about graduating from college,” Wassman told A Plus via email. “I had gone back to school a little later since I did ballet professionally after high school. So my first worry really was how can this happen now. This is terrible timing. I am sure everyone has seen some type of show or movie that makes any type of cancer diagnosis seem like it’s a death sentence.”
Fortunately, her cancer was caught early, which meant “there were so many ways to treat it.”
Wassman’s spent her spring break in treatment.
“I felt like my mind was racing and I really just keep searching for ways to beat this before I even started going through treatment. I was crying, but my body had really already gone into fight mode and I knew that I wasn’t going to let this change my life that drastically.”
Wassman, a marketing major, told A Plus she didn’t consider taking a leave from school while undergoing treatment. “I was given the option to take a leave, but I knew that I was so close to finishing that I didn’t want this to interfere with that. I was also afraid that if I took a step back that it would be even harder to finish later.”
Thankfully, she had the support of her loved ones and those at her school. “I was so incredibly lucky to have a supportive group of professors and advisers at Loyola. Everyone’s kindness and support during this time really showed the school’s Jesuit values, and I am so grateful to have had everyone by my side.”
“Everyone helped me realize that now was the time to really lean into them and ask for help when I actually needed it.”
After going through treatment with the support of friends and family, Wassman walked across the stage in May to graduate, along with the rest of her classmates.
“It felt like one of the biggest accomplishments of my life,” she said. “I definitely teared up because I couldn’t believe that I actually did it.”
Not only did she make it to graduation, she graduated Summa Cum Laude with a 4.0 GPA, the highest in the business school, and she received the Dean’s Key.
Achieving her academic goal helped with her treatment. “From not thinking I would even be graduating on time to achieving even more than that, I was so proud of myself. And I think it just gave me hope that the rest of my treatment from [then] would be OK.” That included undergoing a bilateral mastectomy to have “no chance of occurrence.”
Wassman chose to share her story online after she saw a lack of young women represented when she searched the internet. “When I was first diagnosed I did a few initial searches on social media to see what was out there for #breastcancer, I started seeing a small community of women, but what I realized was there was still a lack of young women with breast cancer. As I kept searching, I found more and more people and I realized that it is so important to share this with my own friends and family online.”
“It is rare to have breast cancer under the age of 40, but it can still happen. I really felt that sharing my story helped put a face and a person to who breast cancer can happen to. On top of that, I didn’t have any genetic predisposition that made me more susceptible to breast cancer. So I wanted people to see that it really can happen to anyone.”
“My main goal with sharing my story was to help young women realize that it can happen to anyone, so they should be checking themselves regularly. There also should not be any shame or stigma around this. I am still the same person I was before breast cancer; I think I am just stronger now.”
She also felt compelled to share her story to show all sides beyond the “smiles and pink.” Wassman states, “I want people to see the reality … it’s hard, and I have definitely broken down a few times on my Instagram story during the thick of it,” she reveals. “But no matter what, I keep pushing through and moving forward with my life because as much as it would be nice to just stop everything and deal with breast cancer, the reality is that life keeps going around you.”
“I would want to encourage young women to be active in their breast health by making sure they do monthly exams and build those relationships with their doctors. I am so lucky that my mom taught me from a young age to do self-breast exams, because if I didn’t I may not have found my breast cancer as early as I did. It can really help with treatment and so much more.”
Wassman wants others to be aware of the choice of treatment. “Personally, I wanted to go the most drastic route and do a bilateral mastectomy, but I could have easily done a lumpectomy also and have been completely fine. It really just depends on what you want to do and there is no wrong answer, but just make sure that you are open and honest with your doctor.”
She also wants others to know they are never alone in their diagnoses. “There are so many amazing women out there who have gone through this and could help you through it. I have made a number of great friends under these unfortunate circumstances, but I don’t think I could have gotten through it without them by my side. I was also so lucky to have support from my friends and family, but the reality is, they will never know what it is like to go through this, so having that internal breast cancer support group I found extremely helpful.”
Wassman has joined support groups through Gilda’s Club Chicago, Imerman’s Angels and attended different events from Courage for the Soul, Susan G Komen and The Breasties.
TODAY reports that she held off taking a job after graduation to focus on treatment, but has started taking online courses with the intention of doing an MBA.