News: Featured Stories

Sean Ryder, PhD, and Jill Zitzewitz, PhD
June 23, 2017

Support from UMass Medical School community helps Dr. Zitzewitz through treatment


  • Medical School
Sean Ryder’s hair-razing campaign supports Jill Zitzewitz as she faces multiple myeloma

The Beard, as it’s lovingly referred to by its owner, Sean P. Ryder, PhD, has been a work in progress for more than 18 months. It’s a tribute to the vibrant man Dr. Ryder called ‘Dad.’

Alas, it’s time to bid The Beard adieu.

On July 1, Ryder, professor of biochemistry & molecular pharmacology, will be clean shaven for the first time since 1993. He’s doing it to raise money for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation in a show of solidarity for a respected and beloved colleague, Jill A. Zitzewitz, PhD, who now has the same disease that took Ryder’s father’s: multiple myeloma.

“When I found out that Jill had multiple myeloma, I was heartbroken because I’ve seen what that looks like and can be,” Ryder said, stroking his 10-inch-long beard. “I knew there was going to come a time when she needed her own shave and I thought maybe I could shave my beard in solidarity.”

Dr. Zitzewitz, associate professor of biochemistry & molecular pharmacology, was deeply moved when Ryder told her that he was going to shave his beard in honor of his father and in support of her.

“Just being able to laugh through this, to come to work and have an ordinary conversation and laugh and poke fun with my colleagues . . . it means a lot,” she said. “The response has been great. A mix of ‘thank God The Beard is going’ or ‘oh no, The Beard is going’ and ‘OK, Jill, you’ve got this.’ It just shows you what a wonderful place this is.”

Zitzewitz felt more tired than usual last fall; she had multiple grant applications due, was teaching, running a lab, caring for her four children and active in her community. In December, she suffered some broken bones. She started having tests. She wrote two grants through the pain and in March, she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that develops in plasma found in bone marrow. A biopsy showed 70 percent cancer.

“In my lab, we study protein misfolding. We try to find ways that we can develop therapeutics to stop proteins from misbehaving, as well as biomarkers to track them when they do. It’s the ultimate irony that what I study in test tubes is what I have occurring and causing trouble in my body,” she said. “I’ve got some great ideas now around my research that I’ll be working on during the isolation phase of my treatment.”

Multiple myeloma is a stubborn cancer, but the combination treatment Zitzewitz is undergoing is expected to delay its return. She recently completed the first phase of her chemotherapy treatment using Velcade, a front-line therapeutic option for this specific cancer. Oliver J. Rando, MD, PhD, professor of biochemistry & molecular pharmacology, helped develop the science behind Velcade as an undergraduate at Harvard University. Zitzewitz underwent a biopsy in mid-June that showed no cancer, but it’s the tiny cell populations you can’t see that need to be eradicated. The next phase of her treatment involves a stem cell transplant and months of isolation as her immune system rebuilds.

“I’ve been overwhelmed by the support here at UMass, my church community, my town. Now it just seems like one of those things; it’s not so overwhelming anymore. Part of living it is sharing it and, for me, I’ve been honest about sharing it and preaching to myself and reminding myself to stay positive and get through it. It helps a lot. I’m just glad that I’m getting my care in my community, where I work and where I’m comfortable,” she said.  

“Sean has been my go-to person since the beginning of this. I knew his father had had multiple myeloma; besides my family, Sean was the first to find out. As he was for his dad, he has been a filter and this has been huge for me. He can say, ‘Yes, this sucks, but here’s what this means; this is good; this is how we’re going to approach this.’ This has been gigantic for me,” Zitzewitz said.

The idea to shave his beard to support the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation—whose mission is to “accelerate next generation multiple myeloma treatments to extend patients’ lives in pursuit of care”—was not an immediate one. Ryder got the idea when a good friend shaved his hair in support of children’s cancer research.

“I wanted to raise money for myeloma research and this seemed to fit. Once I announced that I was going to do this, in less than four hours I had reached the fundraising goal needed to trim The Beard short ($2,000 in donations). I was blown away,” Ryder said. “So, I decided to push it ($10,000 in donations for a clean shave); although, now some colleagues say they’ll donate more if I keep The Beard.”

Ryder has had a beard since he was 19 and a sophomore in college. The facial hair took on more meaning when his father died in April 2013. Since then, Ryder has grown his beard out on an annual basis and trimmed it on the anniversary of his father’s death or his wife’s birthday. This year The Beard was given free rein.

The self-imposed July 1 beard-shaving deadline was not selected at random. The Beard will take its final bow at around the same time Zitzewitz suspects that she’ll lose her hair during her autologous stem cell transplant. Doctors started harvesting her stem cells in mid-June in preparation for the treatment.

On June 15, the day that Ryder’s father would have turned 78, the donations exceeded the $10,000 threshold requiring Ryder to shave The Beard clean. If donations surpass $15,000 by midnight on June 30, he will stay clean shaven for at least 12 months.

“There is a tongue-in-cheek fun side of this. I wanted to make it amusing while raising awareness and money for myeloma research. I want it to be fun; I don’t mind being the butt of the jokes, and no, I do not intend on donating it to Locks of Love,” Ryder said. 

To support myeloma research and Ryder’s tribute to his father and colleague donate here: