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How a Former Patient Now Devotes Her Career to Helping Others

female doctor in chair laughs with patient

When Jennifer Giesel was six-and-a-half months pregnant with her son, she woke up in the middle of the night and collapsed.

She was rushed to a local emergency room, where she was in respiratory failure and eventually went into cardiac arrest.

Doctors delivered her baby via emergency cesarean section and immediately transferred him to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital. Ms. Giesel was placed in a hypothermic coma in the Intensive Care Unit.

One week later when she did wake up, she learned that doctors had also removed a tumor the size of a golf ball from her throat, which had cut off her air supply.

She later found out that she had stage IV laryngeal cancer. Ms. Giesel underwent cancer treatment at University Hospitals Seidman Cancer Center, where she had additional surgeries as well as 35 rounds of radiation and seven chemotherapy treatments.

Making the Connection

“After treatment, I was trying to process everything that had just happened to me,” Ms. Giesel says. “I went to support groups for my specific cancer type, but most people there were twice my age, and I just couldn’t make a connection.”

The social worker at UH Seidman told Jennifer about the Angie Fowler Adolescent & Young Adult Cancer Institute at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, fully integrated with UH Seidman Cancer Center, part of the NCI-designated Case Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“I was part of this unique age range of cancer patients who don’t fit with the pediatric population, but are younger than most adults who are being treated for cancer,” she says. “That’s exactly who the Adolescent & Young Adult Cancer Institute is designed for.”

She started attending the survivorship group meetups for young adults and met many people who were closer to her age and life circumstances.

“Right away, I felt relieved,” she says. “I could finally be in a room with people who understood what I was going through. It was where I needed to be and where I wanted to be.”

Angie’s Institute created a shift in Jennifer’s life that allowed her to move forward as a mom of two young children and a cancer survivor. It also opened a door in her life professionally that she never could have imagined.

Coming Full Circle

At the time, Ms. Giesel was completing her degree in clinical psychology. She started talking to Amelia Baffa, RN, MSN, Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Nurse Navigator at Angie’s Institute, about how she could help others going through what she’d just experienced.

“I felt like this was an area where I could really make a difference and give back,” Ms. Giesel says. She started meeting with teen and young adult patients and leading support groups.

“It just fit,” she says. “And it felt really good.”

For the past year, Ms. Giesel has served as the Clinical Psychology Doctoral Fellow at Angie’s Institute. She’s part of a team – including Amelia and Yousif Matloub, MD, Pediatric Hematologist and Oncologist – that supports patients ages 15 to 30 from diagnosis through survivorship.

Angie’s Institute is designed to help patients feel comfortable throughout their cancer journey – from a medical and psychosocial perspective – helping them ultimately heal from cancer and move forward with their lives. Ms. Giesel now helps young cancer patients and survivors connect with peers for support and build tools to effectively manage a cancer diagnosis and the emotions that accompany such a diagnosis.

“For someone in a peer group who’s newly diagnosed with cancer, being able to see others like them who are thriving in survivorship can help calm their fears so they can see there’s life after cancer,” she says.

Ms. Giesel is living proof. Today, she shows no evidence of disease. Her children, ages 3 and 5, are healthy and keep her as busy as ever. And every day, she gets to support a unique population of patients who are navigating the cancer experience just as their lives are taking off. “It’s an honor to be able to do what I do,” she says.

Stories of courage

How can friends and family support someone going through cancer treatment? Watch real Angie’s Institute patients share their perspectives on the little gestures that make a big impact for someone facing a cancer diagnosis. You’ll find the video at Rainbow.org/AYAplaylist.

A patient-centered experience

Cancer in teens and young adults is rare. So, finding an expert who specializes in your type of cancer is extremely important. Furthermore, research suggests that, for some types of cancer, young adult outcomes may improve when they are treated with pediatric protocols. The experts at Angie's Institute weigh all these factors to identify the best treatment plan for each individual patient.

Angie’s Institute offers features like:

  • A technology-rich facility designed especially for AYAs
  • Unique peer support coupled with age-specific cancer programming
  • Extensive expertise in cancer evaluation, diagnosis and treatment
  • A dedicated AYA nurse navigator who partners with patients, guiding them to resources such as financial and legal assistance, career and school guidance, and fertility preservation
  • Access to lifesaving therapies like proton therapy, stem cell and marrow transplantation, and critical clinical trials