There’s something so mesmerizing about Jessica Cook. Whether it’s her infectious laugh or kind smile, she exudes a warm, blinding glow that one can only describe as sunshine.
Just like the sun, she’s magnetic — pulling people into her orbit, making them feel calm and welcome in every instance and in any circumstance. The people around Jessica rave about the light within her, as she strives to be a force for positivity.
But she hasn’t always felt like this. Her rays began to dim the summer before her senior year of high school.
Growing up in St. Augustine, Florida, Jessica never felt any different from her peers — until the third grade. At the age of just nine years old, she began gaining weight randomly and rapidly.
Despite her hatred of needles, her concerned parents took her to get a blood test. The results: hypothyroidism, a condition where the thyroid becomes underactive and unable to produce sufficient hormones — leaving her with a lifelong need to take medication that acts as her organ. The condition also causes a number of symptoms — one of the biggest being weight gain.
In the time of middle school and the early 2000s, where thigh gaps were all the rage, Jessica couldn’t help but compare herself to everyone else. Watching herself gain weight, despite now having an explanation, was so difficult that she would cry at doctors’ appointments when she saw the number on the scale.
“Back then, I was just like, ‘I wish I was skinnier,’” Jessica says. “It was a trend to be skinny, and I felt like I was overweight all the time — not really loving my body.”
Her feelings towards her body carried over into high school, despite losing the weight she gained from her hypothyroidism.
“I was still so insecure of my body. I had a fear of gaining weight again,” she says.
While the intensity of going through drastic weight fluctuations at such a young age hurt her confidence, she was still optimistic about her routine check-up with her doctor the summer before her senior year of high school — hoping it was the last time she would have to see her doctor. Not fully understanding how reliant her body was on her medication, she thought that he might possibly give her the all-clear to stop taking it.
But instead, she received news she never saw coming.
At the appointment, her doctor examined her throat and stumbled upon a lump in her thyroid. He sent her to get an ultrasound of her throat and a biopsy that would remove tissue from her thyroid gland. Tired and not really focusing, Jessica wasn’t thinking anything of his discovery.
“I kept thinking, ‘I’m fine,’” Jessica says.
She continued on with her summer like any normal seventeen-year-old would by hanging out with friends and family, taking in the last couple of months before her senior year of high school. And then a couple of weeks later, her doctor called and asked if she could see him.
For the first time — just minutes away from seeing her doctor, Jessica thought of what felt like the impossible.
“I remember sitting there with my parents thinking in my head, ‘What if I have cancer?’” she says. “Then, I was immediately like, ‘Never think that ever again, Jessica.’”
When she walked into his office, the sad grimace on her doctor’s face became the telltale sign that her recent pang of worry just might be true.
Her question was answered. They found a tumor.
Her whole world came crumbling down. In shock, she remained paralyzed from fear, unable to speak as her doctor told her that her next steps were finding out if the tumor was benign or cancerous. The only way to do so was surgery, where doctors would perform a thyroid lobectomy, the removal of half of her thyroid, along with the tumor.
“It was good they caught it,” Jessica says. “But, I just kept thinking, ‘Am I going to die?’ I woke up every morning thinking about it. I felt miserable and the thought just kept repeating and repeating.”
Finding out she had a tumor also meant she would eventually have to relay the news about the last few months to her friends.
“I hated people worrying about me,” she says. “I always wanted to be okay [for others], back then.”
Nervous to explain, Jessica let it all out on the table — metaphorically and physically. During dinner with her friends one night, she confessed to her recent findings and was met with nothing but support. On August 31, 2018, the day of her surgery, Jessica was given a huge poster filled with supportive messages from those who have been touched by Jessica’s positive light — now looking to be that support for her.
Part of her thyroid and tumor were removed, and although she was discharged the next day, she was in a world of pain. She could barely move her neck, but she tried to remain positive about her potential diagnosis.
But then a week later, Jessica’s mother gave her the news. She had cancer.
“I try to put on a brave face, especially around my parents, who care so much about me, but I was in shock,” she says. “I sat on my bed and kept thinking, ‘Cancer? Why? Why me? Come on, I have a life to live.’”
The long and aggravating process of having to go back into surgery and remove the rest of her thyroid was physically and mentally draining — leaving Jessica feeling behind.
“By that point, I was like, ‘What do I do next with my life?’” Jessica says.
Penn State, Are You There? It’s Me, Jessica
The world didn’t stop for Jessica. She had to keep trudging forward and pretend to be just like any other high school student as college applications were quickly catching up to her.
“Everyone is thinking about colleges and how to make memories of their last year in high school, and I have cancer at seventeen years old,” Jessica says. “What seventeen-year-old gets a tumor in their throat? It was a lot to handle mentally, and I was just like, ‘I can’t do this.’”
Still behind, Jessica applied to college … and then got rejected. And then got rejected again and again to the point she didn’t know where she was going to end up. The pressure of going to the “perfect” school festered within and gradually rose to the top until she broke down crying to her doctor about her next steps.
Mad at the universe, she couldn’t find her “dream” school, and it was hard watching her friends get into their school of choice. While working, a friend visited her to share the news about their college acceptance, which prompted her to call her mom, begging for any new updates. Her mom told her she got into Penn State — even after applying on a whim and almost forgetting she even applied. Something immediately clicked and she began crying.
“I thought, ‘I think it’s a sign from the universe that I should go to Penn State,’” Jessica says. “I wanted a change, and I think it was a great time to branch out.”
Despite the exciting news, cancer was still in the back of her mind. The thought of having to explain her story and the scar across her throat was eating at her.
With Penn State on the horizon and a few months left of high school, the transition to college seemed like a daunting task, and her mental health wasn’t improving.
“I wasn’t living my life,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m so depressed. I’m killing my mental health.’”
But, Jessica had an epiphany.
She thought to herself, “I need to enjoy this.”
“Cancer is the biggest word,” she says. “It causes a lot of pain. But no matter what happens in my life, I need to enjoy it. I need to live it.”
Jessica realized that she needed to take each day one step at a time and appreciate the smaller things in her life.
“I realized I needed to do more with my life and give more to people,” she says. “I need to appreciate the people in my life because I forget that I should be so grateful to have them around me. I think I had that mentality a little bit before, but it was a journey to remind myself again.”
The struggle to become a perfect version of herself also weighed on her mind. Being reminded of her cancer journey and “having problems” was hard for her to accept, but she began to look within at who she wants to become.
“I constantly want to be a better person,” Jessica says. “I want to bring good into this world through my art.”
Amidst Jessica’s journey with her hypothyroidism and cancer, she was also on another journey — her journey towards becoming a filmmaker.
Coincidentally enough, at the age of nine, Jessica knew she wanted to enter the world of film around the same time she was first diagnosed with hypothyroidism.
She grew up in a world of imagination, constantly creating and watching stories, and once she got ahold of her mom’s old laptop, she began filming short movies and music videos. All throughout middle school, she was constantly writing scripts and producing movies as a way to pass the time and let her creativity soar.
What some thought was just a fun hobby turned out to be her lifelong passion. In high school, she finally realized becoming a filmmaker was plausible when she met other passionate film fanatics like herself.
“I decided I wanted to go to a school where I could actually use my craft,” Jessica says. “I wanted to make my own films and learn more throughout that process from [established] professionals.”
When she finally got to Penn State and had the opportunity to put those years of filmmaking to work, she began learning even more about her art and herself. Stepping out of her comfort zone and making more and more connections, Jessica decided to bite the bullet and make a feature-length film — a project that would kick-start her career.
“Stories from Behind the Lens,” a 48-minute documentary about Penn State students that spent a year working on one film during COVID-19, prepared her for her biggest career accomplishment yet: “Sunflower.” Showcasing a man going through a breakup, her short film, “Sunflower,” discusses what it’s like to blossom in a time of hardship and pain.
“I was in a relationship with someone and it went south for a while, and it just wasn’t working out anymore,” Jessica says. “We broke up, and I had this idea of creating this experimental film that played with experiencing different emotions. And then it clicked in my head that I was going to talk about the five stages of grief.”
After a few months, she took an experimental class that allowed her to make the film with a full production crew and professional actors. With the help of her producer, she began storyboarding each stage of the film, and she eventually created a movie that represented a number of circumstances Jessica dealt with herself. From the death of family members, heartbreak and even her own cancer journey, her film captured the intense stages of grief she’s experienced these last few years — all while telling her audience that happy endings do come true.
Her film caught the eye of the judges for the Splice Film Festival 2021 Audience Choice Award, landing “Sunflower” its very first award.
“I thought, ‘Wow. I’m an award-winning director and creator,’” Jessica says.
Her next steps: taking what she’s learned from working on “Sunflower” and in her film classes at Penn State and applying it to the next two films she’s working on.
“All of my films will have a piece of my heart because I work so hard on them, but you have to know when it’s time to end it, so you can go on and make another one,” Jessica says.
Not only is Jessica an award-winning filmmaker, but she’s also the president of the Student Film Organization — a club for aspiring filmmakers and film enthusiasts. Ever since she joined her first year of college, she never thought she would become president … until her vice president encouraged her to apply, despite not having any officer experience. Afraid of taking on the role of president, Jessica settled on social media manager until she finally decided to take the leap and become president this past year.
“My goal as president was to get the whole film community together, and give younger students who are filmmakers a chance to connect with students who are older,” Jessica says. “We’ve been doing so many fun things and making sure everyone is involved.”
The most rewarding part? For Jessica, it’s wondering who could potentially be the next president or even the next award-winning filmmaker.
“I feel like a mom, watching every filmmaker and film lover enjoy their time on staff,” she says.
But she remembers that just a few short years ago, she was in their shoes — feeling lost and scared of what her future might look like.
“I would’ve never imagined my life at school here,” she says. “Beating cancer was my biggest accomplishment, but being here as an award-winning filmmaker and SFO president, [is something] I didn’t think would happen. I never thought I could get here.”
Grow Through What You Go Through
But life as an award-winning filmmaker who has also happened to defeat cancer hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows. Throughout college, Jessica has suffered from PTSD-like symptoms such as flashbacks and triggers. Especially during the start of COVID-19, her fears were coming back to light and she was getting triggered by the thought of cancer.
“I’ve always had a fear that I was going to get [cancer] back,” Jessica says. “I had a fear I was going to leave my friends too early when I haven’t done enough with them.”
These recurring thoughts prompted her to go back into therapy.
She discovered that practicing self-care was something she needed to start working on, and little by little, she incorporated activities like journaling and meditation into her routine in order to help with her mental health.
By doing such, she realized mental health is something she’s willing to strive to struggle for and hopes others are willing to do so too.
“Take care of your mental health,” Jessica says. “We all go through traumatic experiences that shape us to be human beings, and especially for college students, your mental health is so important. Something cancer has taught me is that life isn’t perfect. It throws you problems, and it’s how you deal with them that matters. No one is perfect.”
Something that’s helped her on her mental health journey is the phrase, “walking on sunshine avenue” — a motto she came up with in high school to help her through the growing pains of growing up.
“Sunshine is radiant,” Jessica says. “So when I tell myself to ‘keep walking on sunshine avenue,’” I tell myself to keep moving forward and to ‘keep walking towards a happy life.’”