Student changes major to help other cancer patients as she fights on

February 17, 2009

During her first semester as a Wilkes University pharmacy student, then-18-year-old Jackie Mazur was feeling constantly stressed.

"I was working two jobs, coaching junior varsity cheerleading at my alma mater and attending classes daily. I was working at the pharmacy and had to leave because my heart palpitations were getting so severe. I had awkward pain and just finally had enough," she explained. So she drove herself to Wilkes-Barre's General Hospital. While walking down a set of stairs to the emergency room, she collapsed.

Tests showed a tumor the size of an ostrich egg was resting on top of her liver and pressing on her right lung, which had been causing her distress.

After a local biopsy, Mazur was sent to the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. She was diagnosed in November 2005 with Ewing's sarcoma (a type of bone cancer) of the right ribs.

"It all moved so fast," she explained. "I was diagnosed and a few days later began treatment. I had to complete 42 weeks of chemotherapy — alternating three- to five-day treatments, all in-patient therapy — six weeks of radiation and one major tumor resection where they also removed four of my ribs."

Social worker Greg Baiocchi was the first person from the Four Diamonds Fund to help Mazur and her family.

"Whatever was needed or asked of him, he always went above and beyond," she said.

When asked what she remembered most about her experience with the Four Diamonds Fund family, Mazur exclaimed, "Support! No matter what event we attended, or even if we were in the hospital, the support that came from Four Diamonds Fund — whether financially or emotionally — was unbelievable."

After being diagnosed with cancer, Mazur said, her life changed completely. "After many talks with Greg, I finally came to realize that my cancer was a gift in disguise. I decided to transfer to Penn State and become a nursing major. I loved spending time in clinic, rather than on the floor, so I could interact with the kids. My love for my 'little brothers and sisters' was evident and I knew I had to give back. I am hoping to continue my education and become a nurse practitioner specializing in pediatric oncology."

Mazur learned about Penn State's Dance Marathon, also known as THON, while she was receiving in-patient cancer treatment. "I was excited to learn that college students were so eager to help with such an event. After all, the students were my age, and it was amazing to see how much they cared," she said.

She was eager to attend her first THON in 2007 after completing cancer treatment. "I had a great time and was truly overwhelmed. To get my sister involved, I completed the captain-in-training experience with her, and we, also as a family, had our first Penn State Wish." (THON's Penn State Wish Program grants Penn State-themed wishes to Four Diamonds children during the Saturday afternoon of each THON -- this year on Feb. 21. Examples of wishes including leading a cheer with Penn State cheerleaders, riding horses with the University's equestrian team and visiting the Penn State football locker room.)

"My absolute favorite memory was the athletic teams' pep rally," continued Mazur. "I love the enthusiasm they brought, and I remember how awesome the golf team's dance was.

"Once you become a cancer patient you gain a new perspective, and unless you are fully involved you don't understand the family-like bond you have with these people," she added. "They are a part of my extended family.

"It's amazing to see all the hard work and effort put in, and how involved students really are," she said of THON. "The Four Diamonds Fund offers support to families, and the best way to explain it is that the families shouldn't have to worry about finances; they should only have to worry about their child, themselves and their family. The Four Diamonds Fund makes that happen when insurance can't pull through. All of the hard work contributed by these people helps make another child that much closer to conquering cancer."

Mazur was considered cancer-free in November 2006. However, last May during finals week her life took yet another unexpected turn. She was diagnosed with a secondary cancer, acute myelogenous leukemia, and began chemotherapy within a week of her diagnosis.

"The only other option was to succumb to the cancer, and I wasn't about to let that happen," she said.

In July she had a near-death experience while fighting a blood infection and fungal pneumonia. She spent a month in the hospital, and although she recovered from that setback, the effects of the infection, coupled with her years of chemotherapy treatments, damaged her heart. Mazur learned she could no longer receive chemotherapy.

Her medical team started searching for a donor match for a cord blood or bone marrow transplant, and in September, while she was taking the semester off from classes, Mazur was strong enough to receive a successful cord blood transplant.

"I've had many side effects … problems, if you will. Nothing I can't handle," she said.

She is taking online classes and an independent study through Penn State this semester and is working on a book about her experiences with cancer since 2005. Despite her obstacles, she is still pursuing her undergraduate degree from Penn State Worthington-Scranton's School of Nursing.

Phi Chi Theta is still her sponsor organization for THON, her Penn State student supporters since her first cancer diagnosis in 2005. "They are wonderful and have been very supportive," she added.

"Life has thrown me many curve balls over the last year. My graduation is expected next May now. Not a big deal considering I'm still here," said Mazur. "I feel very fortunate and blessed to simply be alive."

  • Jackie Mazur

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated November 18, 2010