Page Menu

Holding her head up high

With hope in her heart, survivor Jill Zitzewitz shares what got her through her cancer storm

Spring 2019

If the UMass Cancer Walk and Run had a theme song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the classic Broadway show Carousel (and recorded by the likes of Roy Orbison, Aretha Franklin and the Dropkick Murphys, among others) would fit the bill.

Cancer survivor and longtime UMass Cancer Walk supporter Jill Zitzewitz could certainly sing it—she knows a thing or two about walking through a storm with hope in her heart, because she was surrounded by supporters during her battle with cancer. Lots of them.

When Jill spoke at the thank-you reception following the 20th Anniversary UMass Cancer Walk in 2018, she introduced herself simply as “a mom, a scientist and an educator.” But many who know her would think she was being modest, as she is, more precisely, a Girl Scout leader, a soccer mom, a field hockey mom, a member her church choir, and an associate professor and researcher and in the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Pharmacology at UMass Medical School who studies ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease).

So, when the news spread that Jill was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in March 2017, people from all aspects of her life rallied around her. They wanted to be sure she didn’t walk this path alone.

Some friends helped her kids get to school, to soccer practice, to music lessons and to every other item on their calendars. Her daughter’s Girl Scout troop handled her annual planting of pansies in memory of her mother. Others helped around the house or kept her company.

“Friends showed up with meals,” Jill said, “They put up railings in my house, so I could navigate the stairs. Others sat and crocheted with me. My colleagues even came to my house to work when I couldn’t get to the lab.”

In particular, one colleague made a very singular commitment. Sean Ryder is also a scientist at UMass Medical School and is known far and wide for his prodigious beard (10 inches at its longest). He went on social media with this promise: to shave if he could raise at least $10,000 to support multiple myeloma research. He was successful—he raised more than $15,000 and got Jill to laugh in the process.

“It meant so much to have shared laughter and ordinary conversations with these good, good people,” she said.

When asked if being a research scientist and a cancer patient simultaneously had challenges, Jill admitted that it did.

“My research is focused on ALS, which has some things in common with multiple myeloma, as both are protein misfolding diseases,” she said. “So, I know quite a bit about both diseases on the molecular level.”

She also had access to scientific literature about clinical trials and other patient outcome studies. Still, it didn’t prepare her for the grim prognoses that were described.

“However, I also had access to some of the smartest people around, right here at UMass,” Jill continued. “They made sure that I knew about the latest work being done on multiple myeloma—research that reports much better patient outcomes over the last 10 years.”

Multiple myeloma is a cancer of plasma cells, a type of white blood cells responsible for producing antibodies. The abnormal plasma cells then produce abnormal antibodies, eventually crowding out healthy plasma cells and interfering with the work that normal antibodies do.

As the healthy plasma cells in the bone marrow are depleted by the cancer cells, multiple myeloma causes symptoms, including increased infections, anemia and bone pain. Myeloma often goes undetected until the symptoms are severe. For Jill, it began with exhaustion and back pain and eventually led to several painful compression fractures before her diagnosis.

“I actually shrank a couple of inches and I was in such pain that I could barely move,” she said. “By that point, the cancer cells composed 70 percent of my bone marrow.”

Current treatment for multiple myeloma includes bone marrow depletion followed by stem cell recovery. It starts with highly toxic chemotherapy that destroys all immune cells, followed by a stem cell transplant to the bone marrow where healthy stem cells begin the task of rebuilding the immune system.

It is every bit as unpleasant as it sounds. With virtually no immune system, the patient is susceptible to every kind of infection; even the slightest cold can be a danger. Until the stem cells finish their work, the patient is confined to isolation, sometimes for weeks or months.

Jill underwent her stem cell transplant in August 2017 at UMass Memorial—and she is incredibly grateful for her wonderful care team, led by Dr. Muthalagu Ramanathan. As soon as she could, Jill got back to the lab and to the classroom—not to mention on the sidelines of soccer and field hockey games. Abiding by her doctors’ orders, she was masked and at a safe distance from others.

Once her disease was in remission, Jill set her sights squarely on the 2018 UMass Cancer Walk. A regular walk participant, she was one of the first to register a team—Jill’s Maroon Walkers. She saw the walk as an opportunity to say thank you for the wonderful care and support she received throughout her illness. Indeed, as a scientist and a cancer patient, Jill has seen first hand how basic science can lead to new hope for cancer patients and their families.

Very quickly, her team gained 20 members, representing all those who rallied around her and her family during the previous year. Together, they raised $4,000 for the 2018 event. Jill also surprised everyone (including herself) by walking the entire five miles.

Excited by these fundraising results, Jill registered Jill’s Maroon Walkers in February for the 21st annual event on Sept. 22, 2019. Together they’ll walk on with greater hope in their hearts that they can raise even more money for cancer research at UMass.

Top photo: Jill Zitzewitz (second from left) takes a well-deserved rest after completing the 5-mile Cancer Walk route in 2018. She is joined by UMMS student and longtime friend Meme Tran (far left), daughter Ellie and friend Teresa (right).

Jill Zitzewitz (right) participates in an emotional Survivor Lap at the 20th Anniversary UMass Cancer Walk in 2018 with her daughter Ellie Bilsel and Ellie's friend Teresa.

Additional Resources
click to open search panel