Jacci Rizzo’s Can-Do Attitude Sees Her Through A Lifetime of Obstacles

By Lisa Fellows-Coffey

WINTER HAVEN - Through all of her adventures, no one ever said to Wonder Woman, “You have cancer.” 

But Jacci Rizzo, a real-life version of the superhero lass, has heard those words in her adventuresome lifetime. 

Rizzo, a Polk State College professor, has not only battled cancer and won, she’s used her nothing’s-going-to-stop-me attitude to survive two life-or-death instances that would rival an Indiana Jones action film. 

Rizzo, 61, of Winter Haven, is the honorary chair and guest speaker at Polk State College’s annual Relay for Life event, to be held Thursday, March 8, on the Winter Haven campus. 

The Relay is an American Cancer Society, volunteer-driven, annual event and fundraiser meant to bring awareness to all forms of cancer. The event raises money for research and wellness programs while celebrating survivors and remembering those that have lost their cancer battles. 

The Polk State Relay for Life, which begins at 5:30 p.m., is the first of many relays in the county across the next two months, which are all open to the public. 

A high heels race for men and a lip sync battle are the highlights of the Polk State event. 

In addition, the Polk State College Over-55 Show Band and Polk State College music students are performing. The luminaria ceremony begins at 7:30 p.m.

“Administrators, faculty, staff and students are all joining together for one thing in mind, helping to raise money to save more lives,’’ said organizer Melissa LaRock. 

Rizzo will serve as the Relay’s guest speaker. She has quite a story to tell and many interesting instances to draw from.

She has traveled the world, met Mother Theresa and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro.

That’s not all. 

Her husband, Tony, a doctor, surgeon and Polk State professor, has seen his wife of 38 years work hard and achieve things others might think once impossible. 

He was with her in Tanzania when they were chased by men with machine guns, and in Nairobi, when the two were held hostage in a hotel by gun-toting rebels .

He was looking through the scope with the doctor who saw her coral-like tumors that were her bladder cancer. 

“She handled it better than I did,” said Rizzo, an Air Force Colonel. 

Anthony was not surprised at all when Jacci decided to continue to earn her college degree while she received chemotherapy treatments.

“She’s really remarkable, incredibly self-effacing and humble,” said Tony. “Getting her degree was an amazing challenge and she just rose to that challenge. I can’t say enough good about her.”

Cancer did stop Jacci, but only for a moment. “I was shocked,” she said when she heard the reason for her pain. “Especially when the diagnosis came through. People with bladder cancer have generally smoked or worked with textiles – neither of which I’ve ever done. Both my parents were heavy smokers. Who knows about second-hand smoke?”

But then in true Jacci form, she assessed her situation and decided to tackle the dreaded disease head-on. 

“We were fortunate to have excellent care with the Air Force, and my husband and children were incredible,” she said about facing cancer. “I had access to good care and my teachers were understanding.”

Her superhuman attitude and outlook on life has carried her through times the rest of us could only imagine, or could only be imagined by Hollywood screen writers. 

 “I really don’t like to say I can’t do something,” said Rizzo, matter-of-factly. She sits at her family’s large dining table at her Winter Haven home. 

With keen eyes, a blonde bob and a sweet smile, the first-time grandmother-to-be methodically ticks off fascinating stories of her life. Her home is a monument of neatly-placed memorabilia from places all over the world. Her right arm bears scars and a permanent bump from an adventure gone awry. Rizzo is someone who rarely sits still and jokingly calls herself an excitement junkie. And sometimes the events leading to the excitement are more than expected. 

But Rizzo doesn’t see barriers or fear.

Her mental fortitude is that of an Olympic athlete with a bible by her side. She takes on a project and goes forward. 

She credits her faith, her love of reading and learning and her lifetime experiences, to not only survive, but thrive in adverse circumstances. “I try,” she replied when asked about her positive thinking. “A lot of it I guess comes down to my faith,” she said. “When I was little, I loved to read biographies – how people who are successful and overcame things.”

Her iron will-power was tested in high school--her family became homeless for a time. “I found a copy of The Grapes of Wrath,” she said. “I thought, what would Ma Joad have done?” she said. Her parents were also alcoholics.

“It was negative,” she said about their circumstances. “It did motivate me to work harder and be an achiever.”

Her situation was much the same years ago when a Jeep full of armed men followed the couple in Tanzania.The Rizzos were taking photos, against cultural norms. 

The men in the Jeep started shooting. As the Rizzo’s dodged gunfire in their own vehicle, the couple collided head on into another truck. Jacci was ejected. Anthony and their vehicle tumbled into a potentially-fatal roll. Anthony managed to break free from their vehicle and found Jacci submerged in a mud puddle. “It was very obvious she was critically injured,” he said. 

Thanks to Anthony’s medical knowledge, his insistence and a combination of diplomats, crafty nurses, and group of pilots, Jacci survived a precarious journey to a room at the George Washington Medical Center where she spent three months in bed. Her prognosis wasn’t pretty. She would probably spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.  

Someone with less mettle than a real-life Wonder Woman might have allowed themselves to fall into a trap of depression, but not Jacci. 

“They actually sent a psychiatry resident to talk to me, because people were surprised I wasn’t more devastated,” Jacci said. “Why should I be above others? It’s just - this is happening and luckily I have resources and choices and not everyone has that. The real tragedy would be to not have someone supportive in your life. It just didn’t seem logical to me. It’s not who I am.” Her positivity is logical to Tony. 

“That’s how the immune system responds,” said Tony. “Your endocrine system is directed to respond to your brain. You can have an immune response, or you can not. She’s just someone who keeps going.”  Rizzo defied doctors by learning to walk again, although her once-broken right arm was never the same, and is limited in both turning and grasping. 

She also kept going when the pair were held hostage in a hotel in Nairobi after the Kenyan Air Force attempted to overthrow the government around 1982. They were shooting in the streets. Those caught in their way were shot dead or were injured.  

As medical professionals, the Rizzo’s simply did their duty as caring humanitarians and helped those in need. 

“We had multiple patients who were shot,” Tony said. “Several were raped. It was terrible. We were hostages for several days.”

Jacci was unfazed by it all.  “She never blinked,” said Tony. Jacci’s mental fortitude was the same during her cancer battle in her late 40’s. She endured multiple surgeries over two years to remove cancerous tumors, but she never stopped aiming for her goal of earning her degree.

During the time of chemo treatments, she remained positive and kept life as normal as possible, which included taking her daughters, Catherine and Joanna, to dance classes and recitals. 

“Her attitude was one of a fighter,” Joanna said. “She’s always had this great we-can attitude. She just lives it.”

Like a superhero will do anything to save the world, Rizzo’s special ability is the belief that healing and taking on challenges is mind over matter. 

“I think our emotions and our attitude play a very important role in everything we do,” she said.  “I do feel that it has a huge impact on your health and recovery no matter what you are facing.”

Sheer determination is also motivating. Take Rizzo’s approach to continuing her college classes while receiving chemotherapy. “I wanted to set an example for my children,” she said. It wasn’t a crazy idea to Tony, Jacci’s top supporter.  “I know her,” he said. “You don’t roll over and let life take care of you. You’ve got to take care of yourself. I didn’t see any other option and Jacci didn’t either.” She couldn’t wait for a catheter to be removed to take a physics final. She went anyway.  “I was kind of getting some sympathy points,” she joked. Since her two-year cancer battle, Rizzo has received annual medical check-ups. A true academic, she has a list of do’s and don’ts for those fighting the battle. 

“Anytime you go to doctor, don’t go by yourself,” she said. “Take notes because you’re not going to remember everything later. You are going to be in an overwhelming condition. Go for care with a list of questions. Listen to the doctor. It’s so tempting to go on the internet these days and try to research everything. Go to a reliable source and go to a doctor you can trust.”

She proudly speaks of her Bachelor of Arts degree, which she earned at age 50. Decorated like an academic superhero, she graduated from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, Summa cum laude and was given the Distinguished English Scholar award from the college staff.

Her eyes light up when she speaks of her students. 

She loves using her degree and Masters in Education to teach, and humbly inspire. It’s the same passion that’s heard in her voice when she talks about volunteering at Meals on Wheels, or donating her time to read to grade-school children. 

“We’re here to do things, enjoy life and help each other,” she concludes after looking back at her life. “Otherwise, what’s the point?”

Relays in Polk County:


Date: March 8

Time: 5:30 p.m.

Place: Polk State College, Winter Haven campus


Date: April 6

Time: 5 p.m.

Place: Downtown Central Park


Date: April 13

Time: 5:30 p.m.

Place: Munn Park


Date: April 20

Time: 6 p.m.

Place: Mulberry High School


Date: April 27

Time: 4 p.m.

Place: Mosiac Park

For more information, call 1-800-227-2345 or visit


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