From Battling Cancer to Living a Boundless Life

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Jenna Scalzitti
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Published on Jun 03, 2024

In honor of National Cancer Survivors Day on June 1, I've decided to tell my story publicly for the first time. In May 2019, I was freelancing for a fashion company in New York City, creating presentation decks and training employees on their newly designed product lifecycle management system. I had gone to my endocrinologist several weeks prior to undergo a routine ultrasound of my thyroid, as my doctor was keeping an eye on nodules we’d discovered several years earlier. Earlier that year, I had noticed my energy level was extremely low and my voice was a bit off. After my ultrasound, my doctor told me he would like to do a biopsy of one concerning nodule. This wasn’t my first biopsy rodeo. In fact, it would be my third.

Fast-forward to the end of May, I am in the kitchen with my mom, making our locally famous butter jam cookies. The phone rang just after 5 pm, and I was surprised to hear my doctor’s voice. He informed me that the biopsy results came back, and they were positive for papillary carcinoma with BRAF mutation. A BRAF mutation is a genetic alteration in thyroid tumors that occurs in about 45% of cases and can make the cancer more aggressive and more difficult to treat. I immediately fell to the kitchen floor, and a cry came out of my soul that I have not heard since.

Time stood still, and I felt sick to my stomach. Looking back, I compare it to how people have described finding out JFK was assassinated or watching the 9/11 terrorist attacks on TV. I’ll never forget where I was or what I was doing in that moment for the rest of my life. My parents consoled me, I told my close family and friends, and over the course of that weekend, we awaited the next steps for what felt like a lifetime. I went through a lot of emotions that weekend, wondering why and how this happened to me. I was just 32 years old at the time and generally healthy. I exercised several times a week, I was not obese (a potential risk factor for thyroid cancer in women), and there was no family history of this cancer.

I met with my surgeon the following week, and she talked me through the process of the thyroidectomy I would need. I had vacation plans that summer and asked her if I could still go. When she heard they were coming up in August, she said I should look into changing my plans because the BRAF mutation made this surgery more urgent, and it shouldn’t be delayed. This frightened me, but I altered my vacation and set the thyroidectomy date for August 5, 2019. My surgeon also recommended that I proceed with radioactive iodine treatment shortly thereafter, which was scheduled for that October.

Summer vacation came and went, and August 5 arrived quickly. I surprised myself over that summer by consistently seeing myself not as a victim but as a fighter who had no option but to conquer this disease. I did not shed one tear. Considering I am an only child, I knew I had to be strong for my parents. I was not going to let the cancer define me. Instead, I was going to define my cancer and my journey with it.

The procedure lasted several hours, and afterward, my surgeon told me she had successfully removed my thyroid and 11 lymph nodes in my neck. Ironically, 11 is my lucky number and my birthday, so I thought that was a good sign. I smiled despite the pain and thanked her for everything. She had saved my life.

Soon after my surgery, I experienced the worst night sweats of my life, and my hair was falling out in clumps in the shower. The Synthroid, a synthetic thyroid hormone replacement that my doctor had prescribed, was making me hyperactive. I always felt like I had drunk 10 cups of coffee and my heart was racing. What was happening to me?!  It was a hard time, as I was also learning to live with a surgical scar that made me self-conscious, my hair falling out, the ups and downs of my energy levels, and the fluctuation in my weight. I went for bloodwork quite frequently, and my dosage was constantly changing to try to balance the thyroid hormone levels in my body.

October, and the next step in my treatment, the radioactive iodine, soon arrived. Over the course of a few weeks, I received a series of three injections in the hospital to prepare my body to take the iodine pill. In the radiology department, the radiologist approached me in gloves and a suit that looked more appropriate for space travel than a hospital, carrying the pill in a metal container. The pill looked like a rapid-release Tylenol, and it also took me two hours to finally get the courage to swallow it. I was so nervous that the room felt like it was suffocating me, and I must’ve walked out five times in tears. Each time, the nurses would get alarmed, thinking I had taken the pill and just strolled out. Eventually, they realized I just needed some space and a drink of water. The thought that I’d be radioactive after taking the pill was a crazy one.

After taking the radioactive pill, I got a preview of the quarantine the whole world would soon experience due to the pandemic. I had to isolate myself for seven days and use a special garbage bag for the disposal of any utensils or items I used. I felt sick to my stomach and my throat was on fire. I tried distracting myself by watching TV and talking on the phone with friends and family, but it was a sad, lonely week. I ordered takeout a few times and had to tell the delivery man that I could not sign the receipt. Trying to explain why I couldn’t open the door in these last pre-COVID days was darkly comical. One delivery driver lost his temper and yelled at me. With my own patience running low, I yelled back, “I AM RADIOACTIVE! I CANNOT SIGN THAT!” It makes me laugh now, looking back, because he probably thought I was out of my mind.

But all this treatment, discomfort, and difficult isolation was worth it when my PET scan a few weeks later showed I was officially cancer free! Today, I am almost at my five-year “cancer-versary,” which will be August 5, 2024. My endocrinologist said that five years without recurrence is a big milestone in cancer treatment and indicates my odds of it coming back are slim.

I am looking forward to making the most of my cancer-versary and celebrating with those who stuck by my side through it all. Thank you to everyone who was there for me during that time, especially the nurse who took my pre-admission bloodwork and hugged me as I burst into tears, thinking about the surgery ahead of me, and to my surgeon and endocrinologist, who successfully diagnosed and treated me. I truly believe that people in the medical field are real-life superheroes, and I have such respect for all of them. Most importantly, to my parents, who never left my side from the diagnosis to recovery and gave me endless love and support—THANK YOU.

The most important lesson I learned through this whole experience is embodied by the famous Bob Marley quote: “You don’t know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice.” I found I can be very strong indeed. I live every day being more mindful of my habits, such as exercise and nutrition, including trying to eat organic as much as possible and limiting genetically modified and processed foods. I also realized that sweating the small stuff is never worth it in life.

You never know what someone else is going through, and kindness can go a long way, so I intend to live my life that way and spread kindness whenever I can. I have accepted that I will never fully be the same again. My energy level still fluctuates, my hair is different, and I must remember to take my Synthroid. I have to get ultrasounds every six months and keep up with bloodwork, but that is okay. To all of those we have lost in our lives to cancer, I pray they are resting in peace. And for those who have yet to finish their battles, I pray for a cure and for their pain and suffering to end. Thankfully, I’m alive, happy, healthy, and have a lot more to accomplish in my lifetime. My opportunities are BOUNDLESS, and I am a SURVIVOR!

For more information on thyroid cancer, please visit

For donating toward a generalized cancer research foundation that I donate to every year, please visit