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‘I know I’ve got it in me’

Grad with grit: Jessica O’Neill

Byron Center — Jessica O’Neill is the source of informal health information for her family, before the recent high school graduate has even started the nursing program at Davenport University. 

“When my dad’s hip is hurting, he’ll ask me what his diagnosis is,” she said, amused by one of her biggest supporters. 

Determined to succeed in nursing school, Jessica took multiple AP courses at Byron Center High School and was dual enrolled in courses at Davenport during her senior year to help prepare her for the rigorous course load. 

Jessica O’Neill graduated from Byron Center High School with the class of 2023

“I know I’ve got it in me,” she said. “My dad always tells me, ‘You beat cancer; a test is not something that you’re going to fail. If you put your mind to it, you can do it.’” 

Jessica was diagnosed at age 4 with Stage lV Wilms tumor, a rare form of cancer found in both kidneys. For the next nine months, her family spent the majority of their time at medical appointments and in hospital rooms. 

She has been cancer-free since September 2010, though experiences some limitations in how she can participate in sports and how her body currently deals with additional health complications. 

She attributes her interest in anatomy and becoming a nurse to the extensive time spent in a hospital with nurses by her side, especially “Nurse Amy,” who brought her bacon after chemotherapy and radiation even though she knew it would upset her stomach. 

“I want to be a nurse to work with kids and be the person that my nurses were to me and help people in that way,” Jessica said.  

During her hospital visits for chemotherapy, Jessica O’Neill discovered a passion for art

Beyond The Diagnosis 

The O’Neill family — Jessica, her mom, dad, twin sister and two older brothers — moved from Illinois to Byron Center right before the twins started second grade.

“I’m very close with my parents and siblings,” she said. “My oldest brother taught me to be myself and not worry about other people’s opinions.”

While attending Brown Elementary, Jessica took her brother’s advice and became known as an extrovert and fashionista, instead of the “cancer kid.”  

“I brought up my diagnosis when it was relevant to the conversation or if someone saw my scars, but there was still a stigma around it,” she said. “(My classmates) didn’t understand that people can go through things you don’t know about or see from the outside or that cancer patients aren’t always bald.” 

Jessica learned she was a perfectionist as she got older, especially when it came to her grades. Her calendar is scheduled to the hour for classes, homework and even taking deep breaths. 

“Academic validation gives me the motivation to be better, but it can also hurt you sometimes,” she said. “You get frustrated with yourself when you get an A- instead of an A, but when I look back over everything I’ve been through and all the scars on my body, I’m not perfect.” 

A photo of recent Byron Center High School graduate Jessica O’Neill as a toddler

After school, Jessica works in the infant room at Room to Bloom childcare. 

“I loved playing with baby dolls when I was a kid, brought them to all my hospital visits and drew scars on them with a Sharpie to match mine,” she said.

When she applied for the job, they contacted her references to see if she would be a good fit and her AP psychology teacher, Derek Boillat, said she was the exact type of person he would want caring for his young daughter. 

“Jessica has always stuck out in my mind as a student who is driven to achieve,” he said. “She is creative, passionate and is always taking concepts from other classes and building connections and digging deeper.” 

Despite pressures from school and continuous health risks, Jessica strives to live in the moment and take time to rest.

“Doing what makes you happy is important,” she said. “You might feel guilty for not being productive all the time, but it’s OK to take time for yourself if that’s what you need.” 

Read more from Byron Center: 
• A father’s love, a son’s devotion, a school success  
‘He’s ready for the world’

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter covering Byron Center, Caledonia, Godfrey-Lee, Kenowa Hills and Thornapple Kellogg. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News, covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry, before finding her calling in education reporting and landing at SNN. Alexis is also the author of a poetry chapbook, “Learning to Sleep in the Middle of the Bed.”

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