Over the years, music fans at The Stone Pony, the infamous watering hole in Asbury Park, New Jersey, have applauded performances by the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi.
But when local singer Jax (“Just Jax,” she says) walked on stage almost a decade ago, the adults in the room weren’t quite sure what to make of her. Maybe that’s because at age 11, she was barely old enough to babysit, let alone command the attention of a raucous club crowd. But sing she did, giving the crowd that night a glimpse of the performer who would one day channel Janis Joplin on the worldwide phenomenon that was American Idol.
These days, though, Jax is raising her voice, and using her celebrity, to bring awareness to an important cause: thyroid cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, thyroid cancer occurs 3 times more often in women than men (which is true of all thyroid-related health conditions). And while the risk of thyroid cancer peaks earlier for women, most thyroid cancers occur in women between the ages of 40 and 60. Jax was diagnosed with the disease in April 2016 at the unusually young age of 21.
As fans of American Idol know, Jax wound up on season 14 of the show and placed third behind winner Nick Fradiani and runner-up Clark Beckham. The months during and following Idol were a whirlwind of coast-to-coast travel. “My life was chaos, and I was living out of a suitcase,” says Jax. On a visit home in the spring of this year, Jax was grocery shopping with her parents when she felt a lump on her throat—most early thyroid cancers are found when lumps or nodules are discovered on the neck by patients
“My lymph nodes were swollen, but I thought it was just a sinus infection,” she says. Still, she went to see a doctor and was diagnosed with Hashimoto's disease. Based on the symptoms, Hashimoto’s actually made sense for Jax. She was feeling fatigued and sluggish, and experiencing signs of depression.
Jax returned home often to East Brunswick, New Jersey, where her parents live and she received the initial diagnosis. A follow-up CAT scan revealed 18 tumors on her thyroid. A needle biopsy confirmed the worst: 12 of the tumors were cancerous.
Jax may be younger than a typical thyroid cancer patient, but she is part of an unwelcome trend. “Thyroid cancer is the fastest growing type of cancer in the United States,” says Bridget Brady, MD, an endocrine surgeon who also runs a thyroid cancer support group in her hometown of Austin, Texas.
It's not clear what causes thyroid cancer, one of the most treatable forms of cancer, but here are other risk factors:
“We don’t know for certain what causes thyroid cancer,” says Dr. Brady, “but it’s clear that it’s something in the environment, including in our food.”
The good news—for Jax, and for others who will be among the 64,000 people diagnosed with thyroid cancer this year—is that the disease is highly treatable. The first course of treatment is usually a thyroidectomy, the removal of the thyroid gland, which is followed by radioactive iodine therapy.
Today, there’s a trend to be less aggressive with surgery, says Dr. Brady. “We’re finding that it’s not always necessary to remove the entire thyroid gland,” she explains. “But it’s hard to convince people of that.”
Last April (2016) an international panel of pathologists and clinicians renamed a type of thyroid tumor as non-cancerous, sparing patients unnecessary treatments, side effects and the stigma associated with a cancer diagnosis. (The tumor, formerly called Encapsulated Follicular Variant of Papillary Thyroid Carcinoma (EFVPTC) has been renamed Noninvasive Folicular Thyroid Neoplasm with Papillary-Like Nuclear Features (NIFTP)
According to Dr. Brady, one aspect of the problem that hasn’t changed—patients must remain on thyroid hormone therapy for the rest of their lives.
“I was really, really worried that I wouldn’t be able to sing again,” says Jax who traveled to Europe in October and recorded in London while she was there. She had cause for concern: Jax’s grandfather also suffered from thyroid cancer and today is unable to speak. Luckily Jax’s outcome has been different. “I worked with my vocal coach to retrain my voice but it’s been hard, and scary,” she says.
So what did she sing first? “I sat at my piano and sang Billy Joel’s ‘She’s Always a Woman,’ as part of a 40-minute charity concert,” remembers Jax.
Jax is certainly not letting cancer slow her down offstage, either. “I run about five miles a day,” she says adding that she completed her first Marathon—New York City Marathon to raise money for Tuesday’s Children—on November 6, 2016. “It was a big check off the bucket list and I’m feeling stronger than ever,” says the singer enthusiastically recounting the 26-mile long run in Manhattan.
The Idol experience was full of highs—singing a duet with Steven Tyler, of Aerosmith—and a few lows—being admonished by Jennifer Lopez for her rendition of Lady Gaga’s “You and I”—and especially being unexpectedly cut at the beginning of part one of the finale. But these days, Jax is upbeat, and grateful she can use her voice to do some good.
“American Idol gave me the exposure of a lifetime, and the people I met during the show are my best friends,” she says. “I can take what I had growing up and what I got from the show, and use it for the rest of my life.”
Today, Jax says she feels great. “I’ve been singing non-stop and keeping hydrated. I try to keep my immune system up and keep on my vocal scales.” Sounds like there’s no stopping this singing star.