Health and Well-being An amazing journey

Sharing her own words

A positive diagnosis derailed the plans Anna Wassman (BBA ’18) had for her final semester and career after graduation. But, she's determined to share her story and experience with others facing the same journey.

When you are diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 25, the first thing people say is “How? You’re so young.”

Yes, with no family history present, no genetic pre-disposition, and a strongly hormone-driven cancer, I still find myself asking “how” somedays too.

But what I’ve learned through my cancer journey is that I may never know how, why, or even “Why me at this time in my life?” I have come to realize is that it is OK not having all the answers. Instead it is about finding what keeps you going after the setback.

Two months before graduating from Loyola University Chicago, I was performing a routine self-breast exam when I found a lump in my right breast. Given my age and lack of family history, my doctor tried to reassure me that this was likely nothing. An ultrasound, biopsy, and two weeks later, it turned out it was breast cancer.

I was diagnosed on March 1, 2018, the first day of my last spring break. I spent the whole next week in and out of the hospital. After countless tests, poking, prodding, and hours in the waiting room, my team at Rush University Medical Center and I came up with a plan of action to treat my cancer.

I remember feeling like my world was collapsing around me. The news left me devastated and afraid of what was to come. I was so stressed. To be honest at this point, it wasn’t even just about my breast cancer diagnosis—I was truly worried about graduating on time. I was on track to finish strong with high honors and had already accepted a job offer from the fall career fair.

By Wednesday of spring break, I had e-mailed all of my professors and Susan Ries, the business school’s assistant dean, asking if I could meet with each of them individually when we returned. I wanted to be fully transparent with everyone since I knew I would be in and out of classes for the remainder of the school year. Letting my Loyola professors know what was going on was not something I had to do, but it was what I wanted to do.

With each Loyola faculty member I told, I felt more and more supported. They each reassured me that everything would be OK here in the classroom and that I really needed to focus on my health and the outside battle I was fighting.

Then just like that, I missed about two weeks of school to start my treatment two months before graduation. It was a difficult experience, but knowing I was so supported by everyone at Loyola and by my friends and family helped me keep a positive outlook on the upcoming months.

As graduation came and went, I managed to graduate Summa Cum Laude, keep my 4.0 GPA, and receive the honor of the Dean’s Key. To this day, I still can’t believe that I achieved everything I wanted to and more. Being able to achieve and surpass my academic goals helped me stay strong. It helped me realize that if I could graduate in the face of adversity, then I could keep going through the cancer treatment ahead of me and be OK.

Lasting connections

From the day I was diagnosed, I wanted to help people with my breast cancer experience. In order to do so, I made it my goal to get involved in this new community and help others as much as I could along the way. I joined a number of groups: Gilda’s Club, Imerman’s Angels, and the Breasties, and I attended events from Susan G. Komen Chicago, Courage for the Soul, and a few others.

I believe that my desire to help others through this came from my education at Loyola. At Loyola we are taught to be men and women for others, and that is what I think I have become. Even while dealing with my own hardships, I have always found a way to give back and help those who may not be dealing with this as well as I am.

By publicly sharing my own breast cancer journey on social media, I was able to connect with other young women going through treatment. One girl I met through my Instagram account was having an incredibly hard time dealing with her recent diagnosis. Well, it turned out we had the same fertility doctor and team of doctors at Rush. After learning about how she would be going through fertility preservation prior to her chemotherapy, I offered to meet her at the doctor’s office and talk her through everything that came with breast cancer.

When we met in person, she was having the steps of fertility preservation explained to her. This consists of a two-week period where you have to self-administer two shots per day, every day, before you have your egg retrieval surgery. For me, this was one of the scariest parts of treatment, so I could empathize when she was crying in the doctor’s office. I stayed by her side, held her hand, and told her all the tips I had that helped me get through this part of treatment.

We ended up talking for three hours after the appointment about what she could expect from the rest of treatment and other resources that I had found along the way. To this day, we are still friends, cheer each other on in our treatment milestones, and attend the same support group. Helping her get through those upsetting initial days after diagnosis really made me see that I was making a difference in other people’s lives and truly living up to being a person for others.

The path forward

I still can’t believe I made it through. It feels like it was a blurred lifetime ago, but what really helped was taking it day by day and knowing that there were so many incredible people behind me. I have learned when we think we can’t do it, we just have to keep pushing forward. We just need to keep planning and trying to see the positive even in the most unfortunate circumstances.

I made friends who were also going through treatment and built a community where we could confide in each other when outside support systems could not understand what we were going through. We leaned on each other during this emotionally draining time, which made this difficult experience a little more bearable.

Today, I am done with my chemotherapy and surgeries, but I am still going through preventative treatment. My hair is growing back, my body is healing, and I have finally started working at my new job. What I will forever hold on to from my experience are the real connections I made with others. I have found what sets my soul on fire, and that is being supportive to other young women who find themselves facing breast cancer at such a young age.

My advice to anyone facing any setbacks in their lives is to just keep going. No matter how bad you may feel in the moment, everything will work itself out. By approaching things with a positive mindset, I have seen how this can really make all the difference in how we overcome life’s challenges.

The path to health and well-being

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