25-Year-Old's Cough Was First Sign of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma: 'Smacked in the Face with the News' (Exclusive)

In January, Jace Yawnick was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma — now he is creating a nonprofit to help other cancer patients pay for treatment

<p>Courtesy of Jace Yawnick</p> Jace Yawnick receives cancer treatment in Florida hospital.

Courtesy of Jace Yawnick

Jace Yawnick receives cancer treatment in Florida hospital.

Jace Yawnick first noticed his cough in August 2023.

The Boston native would start coughing every time he laughed – and it kept getting worse. A month later, during a work trip to New York City, Yawnick struggled to run from his hotel to Central Park. He had to stop numerous times to catch his breath, which was unusual for the fit 25-year-old.

Around the same time, he started experiencing fatigue and back pain, which led him to seek medical advice from multiple doctors and specialists. Initially, he was prescribed medication for acid reflux.

After being dismissed by his primary doctor and others for several months, Yawnick saw a chiropractor who suggested the possibility of a hernia in his chest. On Jan. 18, Yawnick got a chest X-ray.

"That same day, they came back with the report," Yawnick recalls in an exclusive interview with PEOPLE. "They didn't find a hernia, but they discovered a mediastinal mass and two shadows around my heart."

He adds, "I didn't even know what that meant. So I looked it up and said to myself, this is not good. This is not good at all."

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<p>Courtesy of Jace Yawnick</p> Doctor discovering tumors near Jace Yawnick's heart.

Courtesy of Jace Yawnick

Doctor discovering tumors near Jace Yawnick's heart.

The following day, Yawnick underwent a CAT scan that confirmed the presence of three tumors around his heart. Subsequent biopsies and a PET scan led to a diagnosis of primary mediastinal B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

According to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, this type of cancer usually starts in the upper chest area called the mediastinum. Early symptoms include a cough, shortness of breath and swollen lymph nodes.

"My mind went blank almost," says Yawnick, who now lives in Fort Myers, Fla., with his girlfriend Sarah. "It's kind of like a flash-bang went off; you're just smacked in the face with the news. I was in tears because I didn't know what to expect. I mean, I just got diagnosed with cancer, and I'm 25 years old, and I'm wondering if this is the end."

After his diagnosis, Yawnick started doing online research about non-Hodgkin lymphoma and stumbled upon a series of YouTube videos from someone with the same type of cancer.

As he watched the videos, he saw a man who went from a normal-looking guy with a full head of hair to someone in the depths of difficult cancer treatment.

"Then, in the last video, he had his hair back, a beard, and a belly again — he had beaten cancer," says Yawnick, who works in commercial sales. "At that moment, I knew I could beat it,"

Inspired by these videos, Yawnick created the social media account JaceBeatsCancer to document his journey for friends and family. He gave them glimpses of his difficult treatment which included a six-round cycle of chemotherapy.

But to his surprise, his account went viral and he gained more than 100,000 folllowers on Instagram and TikTok. Nearly every day he shares health updates, often from his hospital room.

"I'm hooked up as we're talking," Yawnick mentions during the interview, explaining how his chemo dosage lasts for 96 hours straight.

<p>Courtesy of Jace Yawnick</p> Jace Yawnick prior to his cancer diagnosis.

Courtesy of Jace Yawnick

Jace Yawnick prior to his cancer diagnosis.

He currently has two more rounds to go but doctors may end up adding another depending on how much the tumors have shrunk. Following chemo, he says he will undergo radiation every day for 4 to 6 weeks.

Yawnick adds that several of the videos have been emotionally challenging for him to film, especially one in which he and his dad fill out after-life paperwork.

"We were crying as I wrote my will and I'm leaving things to my parents and I'm leaving things for my friends and my girlfriend. And it was a heavy moment," he says, recalling filming the TikTok video.

"There are other moments when I'm in a lot of pain or feeling really awful or tired, but I just remember what I promised myself about documenting this raw, and I can't just have the positive moments. I have to show the tough times," he continues.

Since going viral, Yawnick has had thousands of people reach out, asking if they can donate money to his care.

And while he is grateful for the support, he says he does not need extra help, given his insurance and other financial resources. However, he knows that so many other people with cancer desperately need assistance.

So amid chemotherapy and as he continues to make progress, he has starting a non-profit organization called JaceBeatsCancer. To get it up and running, he hired a nonprofit attorney, created a board of directors, and established a website, which will be live on April 29.

Yawnick is finalizing plans to collect donations for other cancer patients. He hopes to award his first grant before he's done with his treatment.

"It's not about me; it's about all of us. It's about the community coming together. I just happened to be the vehicle to do it," he says. "I'm just so grateful that I have that support that's enabling me to help other people because it's about the people going through cancer and getting them support."

"I hope one day when it is my time, my legacy is that I helped a lot of other people live out the rest of their lives because I didn't know if it was going to be over for me at 25. And it doesn't matter how old you are — cancer sucks — but I want to help everybody live as much life as they can live," he adds.

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