While planning a post-graduation trip with college friends, Loyola University Chicago senior Anna Wassman was totally focused on saving for her trip — until she noticed a lump in her right breast that she had definitely not felt before.
A former professional ballerina who’s “very in tune with her body,” Wassman immediately called her doctor, who told her to wait a few days to see if it would go away. She waited, but says she “knew this wasn’t good.”
When the lump was still around two days later, Wassman got an ultrasound, which then necessitated a biopsy. Despite the reassurances from family, friends and medical professionals that she was too young for the lump to be anything serious, she anxiously called her doctor’s office every day.
Almost a week after her biopsy, on March 1, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, Stage IIa HER2-positive. “This can happen to anyone at any age,” Wassman tells PEOPLE.
So what goes through the mind of a 25-year-old who’s at the top of her class, working full-time, already has a job offer — and now has to fight a life-threatening illness?
“I definitely started crying … and I immediately went into planning mode,” the marketing major recalls. “I knew it was something I had to address, and I couldn’t avoid it anymore. Now that I knew what was going on, it was like, ‘How can we fix this?’ “
The diagnosis came at the beginning of her spring break, so Wassman packed the following class-free week with doctors appointments, MRIs, CT scans and mammograms. She also asked questions about what she could change in her diet, her physical activity level and any other lifestyle factors that could improve her prognosis.
Because she wasn’t going to give up on her goal: “I just wanted to walk across the stage and graduate [in May],” Wassman shares.
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The determined college student met with her professors — one of whom was a breast cancer survivor herself — to explain her situation and prove her dedication to completing her coursework on schedule.
“I wanted to be completely transparent with my professors to let them know that I wasn’t just blowing off class to do something fun or take a job interview,” Wassman says.
She ended up graduating summa cum laude with the top GPA in her program.
“I don’t know how it’s worked, but everyone’s been there in how I needed them. I’m so grateful,” she muses. Her parents flew from California to be with her for weeks at a time. She never attended chemo alone thanks to her her live-in boyfriend and friends. And she built an entirely new support network of at least a dozen breast cancer survivors around her own age.
After having a bilateral mastectomy — “I didn’t have to, but I wanted no chance of reoccurrence,” Wassman states — she had four and a half months of chemo, which finished the second week in September, and will continue her targeted therapy of prescription drugs for a few more weeks. She also has one more surgery around the corner to get breast implants.
The future for Wassman includes working with Imerman’s Angels, a nonprofit that provides one-on-one support for cancer patients. She also earned a two-year internship with tech company BOSCH, six months of which will be spent living abroad in Germany, starting in early November.
In the meantime, Wassman continues to appreciate the strength of her body every single day.
“There have been days where I’ve been like, ‘I don’t want to go to treatment, I don’t want to do this anymore,’ but you have to,” she says. “But I’m glad that I pushed through and didn’t give up and kept fighting.”