Loyola graduate Anna Wassman grew up dancing, and said she’s “in tune” with her body. As a result, when she noticed a lump during a routine breast exam in 2018, she said she knew something was wrong.
Her doctor told her not to worry because she was a senior in college and only 25 years old, so it was normal for things to pop up, she said. But Wassman said she knew something was off and pushed for an ultrasound and a biopsy.
Two weeks later, Wassman was diagnosed with breast cancer, just two months before she was set to graduate from Loyola with a business degree in marketing.
“It was definitely a gut feeling,” Wassman, now 27, said. “I knew something wasn’t right. … As a dancer, I’ve always been very in tune with my body and I said I didn’t trust it and I’d rather be safe than sorry.”
She said although waiting for the biopsy results was stressful, she just wanted to know so she could move forward.
“Either way I wanted to know,” she said. “I was anxious about not knowing … as scary as it was to find out, I at least knew what was going on, so now we can do something about it.”
Despite the diagnosis, she said she was determined to graduate on time.
“I realized there’s no way to stop going to school right now,” she said. “I was so close. There’s no way I’m stopping and starting up again.”
She made a plan with her doctors at Rush University Medical Center — she would get surgery first to remove the tumor so she could finish school and then continue with preventive chemotherapy, she said.
She was diagnosed the Monday of spring break in 2018 and by Wednesday, she had reached out to her professors and her dean to formulate a plan. She said continuing with school helped to shift her focus away from the cancer.
“What really helped me was setting personal goals, like graduating,” she said. “It kept my mind busy so I wasn’t thinking about what was going on internally and helped me keep a positive attitude through the chemo and surgeries.”
She also said her friends, family and fiancé were key in helping her keep a positive attitude throughout the ordeal. She was officially in remission after her surgery, but continued with preventive chemotherapy, she said.
The experience was “surreal” and parts were easier to handle than others. She was more afraid of the IV needles than the surgeries themselves, she said.
She also did fertility treatments to preserve her eggs before they were damaged by chemotherapy so she can use them later to have children, she said. This involved giving herself shots twice a day, which she said was “traumatizing.” She said her fiance had to help her on the first day.
“The first day, I could not fathom that he would stick me with a needle,” she said. “At one point I swear I was like a caged animal backed into a corner, scratching at him.”
Wassman graduated two months later Summa Cum Laude — with highest honors and a 3.90 GPA — and was awarded the Dean’s Key, awarded to a student who exemplifies the highest ideals of the Quinlan School of Business.
Quinlan School of Business Associate Dean Susan Ries said she gave Wassman the award because she was able to persevere through cancer and kept a positive attitude.
“She was an incredible student and she persevered through an incredibly difficult cancer diagnosis,” Reis said. “Her involvement in Quinlan and her grades and her attitude in the face of a life challenge [were] so remarkable.”
Wassman said the chemotherapy treatments were difficult — by the time she felt better it was time to go in for another session.
“The first one was the most mentally challenging but going in for the other [appointments], it was knowing and dreading that I’d feel terrible the next day,” she said.
Cancer treatment had been “a full-time job,” Wassman said. Even though she had technically been in remission since the surgery, she said there was no victory moment.
“I can’t tell you there was this sigh of relief,” she said. “Lots of people like to think it’s a big ‘aha’ moment but it’s really just another day.”
During her treatment, Wassman said she shared her story on social media and got connected with breast cancer support groups. By sharing her story, Wassman became a “spark” for others, which is part of why they awarded her the Dean’s Key, Reis said.
“We are women and men for others and she embraced that with her disease to help other young people and learn from her experience,” Reis said.
She had been offered a job before graduation and was excited to get back to her life once she finished treatments, she said. Now, Wassman said she’s ready to move on from that chapter of her life.
“I’m glad that I did share my story and I wouldn’t change that but lately my life has moved on,” she said. “Cancer isn’t my focus anymore. It’s still going to be a part of my life but it’s not front and center.”
Wassman said she now travels internationally through a marketing program with Bosch, a technology company. She’s currently in Germany but will be moving back to her home in California in a few months.
After moving back to the U.S., Wassman will get married in the fall, she said. The wedding will be in Hawaii because her and her fiance both grew up traveling there so it seemed like the perfect fit, she said.
“It was a perfect place that was special to both of us and now it will be special together,” Wassman said.
Correction: The original version of this article spelled Susan Ries’ last name “Reis” and referred to her as the assistant dean of the Quinlan School of Business. That was incorrect — she’s the Associate Dean and her last name is Ries. These errors have since been corrected.