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Scientist uses her own cancer journey to fuel her career passion

Scholar uses her own cancer journey to fuel her career passion
Scientist uses her own cancer journey to fuel her career passion 03:03

SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- A gifted Bay Area student who faced cancer as a teenager and won has taken on a new role in the fight against the devastating disease.

When Anastasia Abello shows up to work, she brings her true self. The bubbly UC Riverside graduate's confidence shines as an associate scientist at Sutro BioPharma

SRA scholar Anastasia Abello
SRA scholar Anastasia Abello KPIX

The position  combines her passion for cancer research with her experience as a cancer survivor. It's a unique combination that  brings knowledge and empathy.           

"I look so different. I get to stick out. And, like, I just automatically have an appearance. I do identity as queer. So there are a lot of things that pop out at work. And I use that. I like to stick out," said Abello. "I speak up! Somebody will easily remember me at work, because nobody else looks like me. I take advantage of that."

At age 13, Abello was diagnosed with stage 3 melanoma. The affected area was first noticed by her mother Miriam when Anastasia was just an infant. Miriam says her daughter's cancer was repeatedly misdiagnosed until a second opinion finally revealed the shocking outcome. 

Accepting the news was hard for both mother and daughter.

"I just never saw myself as anyone who was sick, and I just didn't want to believe it," recalled Anastasia of her diagnosis as a teen. "I didn't want anyone to know, I didn't want my classmates knowing...for some reason I felt embarrassed actually during that time while I had it."

Her mom was equally devastated.

"The doctor called me and told me. I will never forget that day," said Miriam Abello. "I couldn't believe it. And the first thing I did was call [my daughter] and tell her. You're supposed to be the rock for your children, and to be honest, she was my rock. Because I fell apart."

Doctor's appointments, medical treatment and home care hit the family hard, emotionally and economically. 

"Especially for my mom," recalled Anastasia. "She did end up losing her job around that time when I got diagnosed, because she had to give me care. She had to be there."

Miriam lost a job, but she never lost her faith.

"At church, I had everybody praying for her. And I thank God, you know?" said Miriam. "I made sure that everybody was included in the whole situation with her and we all did it together."

Anastasia's bravery helped her family and her focus, on health and school.

"I was the valedictorian of my sixth grade class, my eighth grade class and my senior [class]," said Anastasia.

Now at 28, Anastasia is cancer free, preparing to start work on a PhD, and inspired by her job. 

"Cancer, what that gave me was a purpose," explained Anastasia. "And what to study and what I wanted to do with my life. And I feel like it gave me answers, because I have always like science. But what in science? Cancer just kind of gave me that path."

It's a career path for her daughter that brings Miriam hope.

"My thing is and I still feel that way, that she's going to find the cure," declared Miriam of her daughter. "She is so good at everything that she is going to find the cure."

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