Director of Operations
Colon Cancer Survivor
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Newly married, Jessica Carroll is Gryt Health’s original non-founder employee! As the longest employee, having joined Gryt Health in January 2018, she has done a little bit of everything. Her current position is Vice President of Operations. She quite often has her hands in many pots at Gryt Health and if she isn’t actively involved in what’s going on, she likely knows a whole lot about whatever it is we’re involved in.
Jessica lives in Rochester, New York. She loves being in the middle of the woods, next to a body of water, preferably without cell service. Being so close to the Adirondacks, she loves checking out all the local places. Her family lives in the Mendon Ponds area, where her love of the woods developed as a child. She would love to visit the Redwood Forests in California one day to develop her love of the woods further.
In addition to getting lost in the woods, Jessica enjoys fishing, kayaking, and being on or in water. Being in upstate New York, she has brought her love of the outdoors indoors, and she has around 150 houseplants. Procuring house plants is her biggest hobby, and it has helped her maintain her mental health throughout the pandemic.
Jessica has 2 older brothers, one of which works for Gryt Health on our Technology Team. She has an extensive support system in her immediate and extended family. Jessica also has a circle of friends that she keeps pretty close. Her kitty, who is known to sit in on Gryt Health virtual meetings quite often, came into Jessica’s life about 4 months before she received her diagnosis. Jessica credits her little buddy in helping her make it through her diagnosis.
Certified in New York State as an art teacher, Jessica had a brief opportunity to teach before her diagnosis. She taught art at middle schools, but as she was diagnosed so young, she ended up switching gears reasonably quickly.
Jessica has worked with 3 startup companies. She worked at Balsam Bagels, a local bakery, for 10 years. Then she did Operations and Marketing for a local distillery, Black Button Distilling, for 4 years before joining Gryt Health. Her initial position was doing the same as her previous position – Operations & Marketing.
Like many members of the Gryt Health team, Jessica came to Gryt Health after meeting founder David Craig in 2017. She was at an event for cancer survivors where she was interviewed and shared her story publicly for the first time – 5 years from her diagnosis. It was the first time that she had felt a strong connection to a roomful of strangers and the first time that she felt connected to other cancer survivors when she was used to being the only one in the room. She was getting stopped by many people who were thanking her for sharing her story, and in those moments, she decided that she wanted to change careers and work in the oncology sphere.
She called David Craig the following week and asked for an interview. She was so passionate and sure of the change that she quit her job at the distillery before even meeting with David because she knew that if she didn’t get a job with Gryt Health, she needed to find another avenue within the cancer circles. Jessica needed to surround herself with others who knew what it was like to undergo a barrage of medical testings, regularly feel unwell while still having to work and push through. She wanted a different system and her work environment to reflect where she was with her journey.
Working with Gryt Health has allowed Jessica to succeed in her mission to find a workplace that understands her and the impact cancer has had on her life. She is excited by the Gryt Health community. “My community,” she shared, “allows me to not only connect with my coworkers on that level, but I get to connect with an entire community and partners who get it. It’s just expanded and enriched my life tenfold.”
Jessica shared that she does not use her voice often, preferring to be running things behind the scenes. As she passed her 9-year mark this year (2021), Jessica shared her story on her social media profiles. She found it immensely empowering and was floored by the outpour of love, compassion, and support she received. She received several private messages thanking her for sharing her story and expressing a decrease in loneliness in their journeys.
She now feels like she can share her experiences more easily and help give others a sense of what is to come down the road if they are going through similar treatments. She loves that aspect of sharing her voice because it enables her to alleviate stress and loneliness. Now Jessica encourages others to share their experience. “I feel like if you share your story, whether it’s with a few friends or on social media, you’re affecting everyone that hears it in some way, and then, in turn, they’re going to share their story.” An actual domino effect.
Jessica feels it is vitally essential for her to share her story because each cancer experience is different. Without sharing your story, you won’t ever find those common threads or the ripple effect generated by story sharing. The human connection by sharing stories weaves us into the paths of others we otherwise would not have ever connected.
When Jessica was 25, she was studying for finals for her art education degree. She had 3 finals on a Saturday, so she stayed in that Friday night after studying and rented a movie. In the film, the woman is diagnosed with colon cancer. Suddenly, the GI symptoms she had been experiencing were swirling around in her head. She immediately wrote in her planner to call the doctor first thing Monday morning.
As she sat in her apartment with her cat, the symptoms the woman in the movie were experiencing were the same as her: weight loss, exhaustion, and bloody stools. Initially, Jessica had been diagnosed with stress. She was going through a divorce, working out a lot, and finishing school. Jessica’s head was spinning. She thought to herself, “I have colon cancer.”
Jessica told her doctor that she thought she had colon cancer. The doctor ordered a minimum amount of test all coming back normal and just said it was stress and hemorrhoids. The color and blood in her stools increased. She felt like she always had to go to the bathroom, even if she just went.
Finally, Jessica’s doctor gave her a number to schedule a colonoscopy. As a 25-year-old woman with no family history and poor lab results, they refused to schedule her. She called her doctor back and received 6 more numbers to call. After being refused by the 5th, she called her doctor in tears. She needed help. It was July, and they wanted to schedule her with an OB/GYN in February!
Jessica thought, “I’m going to die before anyone finds out what’s wrong with me.”
One of Jessica’s cousins was celebrating their 18th birthday and invited her to go skydiving. She agreed to go despite being terrified of heights. She figured that if she were going to die from an unknown disease that no one would help her with, she’d rather die doing something fun.
Her symptoms worsened. She started passing out, and her skin began looking jaundiced. She finally got an appointment for a colonoscopy in October with the help of her parents calling daily, insisting on an appointment, and asking for cancellations. The standard procedure resulted in 3 polyps, which the doctor tried to assure her were not cancerous because they didn’t “look” like cancer. At this point, Jessica was sure it was, though. That Monday, after missed calls from an unknown number on Sunday, Jessica received a call from the doctor with her parents and grandmother standing right next to her in the living room, confirming the diagnosis Jessica knew for months that she had colon cancer.
The doctor did not give her a good prognosis, and she did not share just how poor the prognosis was with her family. After some additional testing, it was determined that she was in Stage III. Without getting tested when she did, Jessica would have died before that February OB/GYN appointment.
Jessica had surgery to remove a portion of her colon the following month, and in December 2012, she started chemotherapy. By June 2013, Jessica received her NED, no evidence of disease status.
A couple of years later, Jessica underwent genetic testing. It was determined that she had a PALB2B gene mutation. The mutation inhibits Jessica’s body from suppressing tumor growth, especially breast, pancreas, and skin. She now has frequent follow-ups with numerous specialists. She has yearly colonoscopies, endoscopies, skin checks for moles and other inconsistencies, breast MRIs, mammograms, and breast ultrasounds, among other annual visits. Since her original diagnosis, she has had 3 benign tumors in her uterus and 3 more in her chest. Those tumors were either removed or marked with titanium for monitoring.
Jessica has been very open with her extended family about her diagnosis but only seldomly shared about it on social media. She didn’t like the impersonal connection of social media concerning the content of what she needed to convey. She preferred to relay information to the people in her everyday life. While at work, she gave regular customers a key phrase if they knew about her diagnosis and wanted to know how things were going. She wanted to ensure she didn’t unload on people who truly didn’t like the details of her life, as well as to remember who she specifically told of her diagnosis.
The most challenging part of treatment for Jessica was having to break down and ask for help. She felt very alone in the process despite having the support of her family. Yet, Jessica didn’t want to feel weak or share her fear of dying.
Despite living in a houseful of people, her parents, brother Ben, sister-in-law and toddler twin nephews, Jessica felt alone and isolated. She didn’t join any support groups and refused support of any kind from strangers. Jessica tried attending a support group early on in her diagnosis, and someone she met had died and left behind a wife and child, and she just couldn’t deal with that at that time. In hindsight, she admits that was not the best decision.
Jessica wishes someone would have told her in the beginning that cancer doesn’t stop when treatment is completed. At 25 when her mom duped her into attending support groups under the guise of crochet groups, she was mad and didn’t lean into it. She couldn’t understand why people who had completed treatment decades ago were still “hanging on” to their diagnosis. She assumed, like many, that when treatment ends, then you return to life as it was. This is just not the case and since she didn’t lean into the idea of support groups, she was not at all prepared for that.
One of her most treasured memories is that a group of friends that she grew up with invited her to a birthday party at one of their parents’ houses across the street from her parents’ house, where she was living during treatment. When she arrived, it was not a birthday party, it was a surprise party for her! Everyone had wigs on, they had one for her and a celebration of Jessica proceeded that evening.
Jessica also has some precious, tender memories with her twin nephews, who learned to be kind, gentle caregivers to “Aunt Jessie.” They would carry notes to other family members when Jessica needed something, and they would snuggle and nap with her. They would check to see if she was hooked up to chemo and bring her blankets to keep warm. She also had the opportunity to bond with the twins’ dad, Jessica’s brother, Ben, a lot more. He drove her to work, blasting the heat and sweating just so she could be warm.
Fortunately Jessica’s support system really came through for her at that time, doing things like assisting with bills in a variety of ways or crocheting or knitting blankets for her. Jessica also shared that cancer changes everything. She realized through the process who were the people she wanted in her life and which friendships were no longer right in her life.
After her diagnosis, Jessica had her father, grandfather and roommate who had all been diagnosed with other cancers. Those experiences made Jessica feel like she had a purpose from having cancer. Instead of sitting on the sidelines and just watching these things happen to people she cared about, she was able to provide support and, as requested, actively assist with getting information and resources. She was able to be the support person that she wished she’d had while going through treatment.
Due to Jessica’s PAL2B genetic mutation, her journey with cancer will never be over even though she considers herself a survivor. Still, she is surviving with her diagnosis. She is currently going through the process of rediscovering herself by doing things her body needs, things that bring her joy, are stress free and relaxes her. She tries to get rid of any negativity, surrounding herself with the people and things that matter: Lots of nature, sunshine, water, her cat, close friends, family and, of course, her new husband.