Strong, selfless and smiling

By on April 23, 2008

While most seniors are scrambling to finish internships, senior theses and land the perfect job, Jana Piccola, a Quinnipiac senior public relations major is fighting her second battle with cancer. However she has not let this battle keep her down. Her and her boyfriend Sean Pawelec, a QU Alumni have raised over $30,000 for cancer.

Piccola was first diagnosed with soft tissue sarcoma at the age of 16, when doctors discovered a mass on her spleen.

“I found out the day of my junior prom,” Piccola said. “They didn’t want me to go to the after-prom because they didn’t want the tumor to rupture.”

“I said screw that and I tried to be optimistic and tell myself that it was not cancerous, but deep down in my heart I knew that it had to be cancer.”

The following Monday she found herself at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, N.Y. She went in for a biopsy procedure and, “next thing I knew, it was twelve hours later. I am hooked up to every machine possible and I have tubes all over. Turned out that upon opening me up they realized it was a sarcoma and they didn’t want to biopsy it because it would leak all over the place.”

Piccola had her spleen and part of her pancreas and stomach removed and then had to follow with six weekly rounds of chemotherapy and 30 days of radiation. During regular checkups she said eventually “everything showed up clean.”

Piccola went on to lead a very dynamic and goal-oriented college lifestyle. Last semester she interned in Manhattan twice a week at the Rachael Ray Show but months into the semester, she began to notice something was not right.

“Commuting from New Haven to Manhattan isn’t exactly time consuming,” Piccola said sarcastically.

“I would get up at 5:30 a.m. and not get back ’til about 9 p.m. Then I would have to do homework for school the next day and on my moments off I would go to the gym. So really, I was running myself down, so it made sense to feel like crap,” she said.

It turned out that Piccola wasn’t simply running herself down. The radiation treatment she received four years prior resulted in her being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), which happens in only three percent of cases.

“When the semester ended I began to have trouble breathing and my heart was aching,” she said, “Walking up the stairs of my house made me completely winded. The next day I got a fever of 102 and since I don’t have a spleen I have to go to the hospital whenever my temperature reaches 101.3. To make a really long story short, the doctor told me my white blood cell count was sky high and that I should go back to Sloan for further testing.”

When she checked back into Memorial Sloan Kettering, Piccola said she “got the official ‘you have leukemia.'” For Piccola, what was about to happen would require much heart, courage and fight. But anyone who knew her knew she would give it all she had.

“I went through a minor surgery to remove fluid but then things got ugly. I wound up in the ICU for about three weeks. I had pneumonia, the fluid, a severe lung infection and two staff infections. I wound up on respirators in a medically induced coma. They told my mom and my boyfriend, Sean, that I might not make it. All my organs began to shut down,” Piccola said.

According to the National Marrow Donor Program, AML is defined as “a fast-growing cancer of the blood and bone marrow. In AML, the bone marrow makes many unformed cells called blasts. Blasts normally develop into white blood cells that fight infection. However, the blasts are abnormal in AML. They do not develop and cannot fight infections. The bone marrow may make abnormal blood cells and platelets.”

With the odds against her, Piccola continued to struggle until one day the sun began to shine through the looming clouds. Her kidneys began to function fully, leaving doctors dumbfounded. Then, she began to breathe on her own. The doctors attributed her recovery to her being an athlete and she said, “it really pulled me out of this mess.”

Others would beg to differ, stating that Piccola is one in a million. Pawelec said, “Jana is so amazing it is hard to describe.”

As her boyfriend of over seven years, Pawelec lives with her and is by her side without fail throughout her struggles and chemotherapy treatments.

“On the days I am unable to go to treatment with her she comes home like she was at school, or somewhere fun all day. She is all smiles.”

When asked who in her life has been especially there for her throughout her struggle, she replied, “Everyone! But especially my mother and my boyfriend Sean, and my brother, Jon-Eric Piccola. My friends from home have also been amazing. They are scattered at colleges all over the place and they always make efforts to come home on the weekends to visit me.”

Specific proof of how Piccola is surrounded by some truly special people and their love for her can be found in Pawelec’s fundraising effort throughout her struggle.

“I actually started the fundraiser when I saw a commercial for it on T.V. one night when I was spending the night in the hospital with Jana. We originally sent out Facebook invites to our Web site and it spread through that. We also held a yoga benefit where people came to the yoga class and all the proceeds went to the fundraiser,” Pawelec said.

Piccola and friends raised $30,000 by the fundraiser’s end last week. The Quinnipiac community is now doing their part to add to that total through an event on campus today, “SURVIVOR: Cookout for a Cure.” From 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. on the quad, students will be able to cookout for food, games and social activities. WQAQ will provide music and there will be a raffle for great prizes.

The fundraiser was planned by Professor Jennifer Bernheim’s PR400 class according to Kara Walsh,junior public relations major.

“My PR 400 special event planning class’s final assignment of the semester is to, as a class, plan and execute an event for the QU undergrad population,” Walsh said. “We knew we wanted to raise money for some sort of nonprofit organization. Professor Bernheim had Jana as a student and keeps in touch with her, so when we found out that she was raising money for the Children’s Cancer Research Fund, we felt it was appropriate to help out a classmate and help her achieve her goal of $25,000.”

The class hopes to raise at least $1,000 to add to Piccola’s and Pawelec’s success.

Walsh added, “We also hope to inform the student body about Jana and the cause that she is donating to. She is truly amazing for what she is doing and I believe she deserves all the support and recognition we can give her.”

Piccola chose to fundraise for the Children’s Cancer Research Fund because of all she has seen throughout her ordeal.

When asked what inspired her, she said, “Mainly all the little children at the hospital getting treatments. I look at these six month old babies and realized that they have so much more to live for. That’s when I realize there has to be a cure. Something needs to be done.”

She continued, “I get angry sometimes because I want to know, ‘Why again? What do I need to prove?’ I hate when people say ‘everything happens for a reason.’ I am still looking for the reason of why this happened five years ago have still not been able to conclude any reason as to why. Why do little babies get cancer? What is the reason for that? I guess we will never know but we just have to take what we have and deal with it.”

“Dealing with it” does not begin to describe the strides Jana is making for both herself and children with cancer across the country, all the while fighting the biggest battle of her life.

When asked how she is doing, she replied, “As best I can. Just like everything and anything else, you have good days and you have bad days. But my support system has been amazing and has really pulled me out of those dark days. I know I am going to be okay because I am strong, positive and driven.”

Anyone who knows Piccola would argue that the three adjectives do not even being to describe Piccola. Piccola will soon receive a bone marrow transplant from her loving brother, who is a ten out of ten match and is eager to help in whatever way he can.

As Piccola continues to receive chemotherapy treatments and focus on her recovery, she and those closest to her have focused their energy on helping her and others with cancer.

With her selfless attitude, she is excited for the opportunity created by Bernheim’s class to raise even more money for her focused cause.

She would also like to have the opportunity to thank those here at QU, including Lauren Parise, Katie Kenary, Rebecca Abrahams and Kerri Wadeyka. “They have done so much for me and really have shown me that they care. Also a huge thank you to Professor Bernheim for her patience with me as a professor and to her class for holding this event. It really means a lot to me,” Piccola said.

She also thanks Professor Levine for being an “amazing online professor,” and would like to thank QU alum’s Sean Pawelec, Michael Heagney, Richard Bultera and Kevin Casey for “lending so much support.”

Admission to SURVIVOR: Cookout For A Cure this Wednesday is $5. A small price to pay to help fund research for children with cancer and to show your support for a truly amazing fellow Bobcat, Jana Piccola.

Those who wish to donate directly to the Children’s Cancer Research fund in honor of Jana or a loved one can go to


About Erin Miller