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Jill Zitzewitz applies cancer lessons in classroom and pandemic

UMass Medical School educator and scientist knows about living through uncertainty

As an educator, a scientist and a patient undergoing treatment for multiple myeloma, Jill A. Zitzewitz, PhD, has a unique perspective on dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is a bit scary, being back in treatment and wondering how the virus is going to impact things,” said Dr. Zitzewitz, associate professor of biochemistry & molecular pharmacology, who gets weekly infusions at UMass Memorial Medical Center. “On the other hand, I feel like having cancer made me used to feeling unsettled. In some ways, it’s made this easier. You’re used to not knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

Multiple myeloma is a cancer of the plasma cells, targeting bone marrow. It can cause symptoms like bone fractures and severe pain, as it did for Zitzewitz. She had numerous fractures of her spine and struggled to walk, she said. She was diagnosed three years ago.

“I had all of my treatment here, I work here,” she said. “This is my community, and this is where I want to get my treatment. After all, my doctor is my colleague.”

Roughly five months after her diagnosis, Zitzewitz received a stem cell transplant. It was recently determined that she needs antibody therapy, and is undergoing weekly infusions.

“A lot of patients are terrified. I feel very safe, and I feel like everybody is being so careful,” she said. “Right now, I know the reality is that there is always a risk, but the risk of my myeloma getting out of control is higher. We take it day by day, and I trust my treatment team to make the right decisions based on the situation we’re in.”

Zitzewitz studies protein misfolding and tries to find ways to develop therapeutics to stop those proteins from misbehaving. Ironically, this is similar to what’s happening inside her body. Through it all, she sees this as an open door to better understand disease, not limited to her own.

“I’ve almost become an experimental model system, and I love teaching about it,” she said.

“I like to call this 'serendipity in science.' At the end of the day, we want to help society.”

She recently transitioned her faculty appointment from a research to education focus. She just completed teaching a virtual cellular biochemistry class, a course that would have been in-person, if not for the pandemic. Despite the daunting situation at hand, Zitzewitz has a hopeful perspective on how she and her loved ones can push forward.

“This is similar to what it felt like after my transplant, where I was in my own bubble at home,” she said. “It’s also helped my family know how to be careful and keep me safe. Maybe I can teach people something about living in uncertainty.”