A cancer diagnosis and the treatment that follows often mean profound repercussions to the life of a teenager. But Stony Brook School of Nursing student Matt Zender ’25 turned the experience into a positive, not only beating the disease but emerging with a clearer sense of his future.
“It’s definitely been a journey,” said the junior.
Zender’s otherwise uneventful suburban upbringing in Sayville, New York, took a nightmarish turn when he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma — a rare form of bone cancer — at age 16. His doctor sent him to Stony Brook Medicine, where he underwent treatment, including a full knee replacement and chemotherapy. But his experience left much more than just a physical impact.
“I had a lot of great nurses on the pediatric oncology floor that really inspired me to get into nursing,” he said.
One nurse made a particular impact on Zender’s future direction.
“There was only one male nurse on the pediatric oncology floor,” said Zender. “We would talk and he told me his experience as a nurse and how some young male cancer patients found it easier to connect with a male nurse during those difficult times. He encouraged me to consider the field.”
Though both his parents worked in healthcare and he always considered a career in civil service, nursing was not on the radar until his own experience battling cancer. In his senior year, inspired by the nurses who cared for him at Stony Brook, he applied to several nursing programs, but his heart was set on getting into Stony Brook.
“I was fortunate enough to get into the Nursing Scholars Program,” he said. “When I learned that I got into the program, I wanted to cry. It was pretty emotional. And it set me on the path I am on today.”
Stony Brook’s Nursing Scholars Program offers a small number of students early assurance of a seat in the nursing program upon successful completion of core requirements. Three years later, Zender is not only excelling in the program, but is leveraging his leadership skills.
He was recently named president of the Nursing Students’ Association of New York State (NSANYS) and he serves as the Nursing Scholars representative to Stony Brook’s Student Nursing Association.
“When I was younger, I was in Boy Scouts, and I was a patrol leader,” he said. “I was also captain of my high school fencing team, as well as student body president. So leadership has always been something I like.”
Outside of his nursing studies, Zender is also a student photographer for Stony Brook Athletics, leveraging a passion he developed during his cancer battle and recovery.
“I always loved sports and I fenced in high school,” he said. “When I wasn’t able to play anymore, I still wanted to be involved somehow. And photography was my way of staying involved.”
In his senior year of high school he worked with a local photography company to earn extra money, and he learned how to shoot sports. At Stony Brook, he found an outlet in the Athletics department, where he’s further honed his skills.
“I like a little bit of everything, but lacrosse is one of the more fun sports to shoot,” he said. “Especially with the great teams that are here. It takes it to a different level. And while it’s a hobby, it’s definitely something that has been a stress reliever for me. It gives my day a little boost.”
Moving forward, Zender has his sights set on pediatric oncology but is keeping his options open.
“I’m about 99 percent sure, but I don’t want to set the path just yet,” he said. “Orthopedics also interests me because it ties in with sports medicine.”
Zender cites three people who have made important impacts on him.
“Janet Galiczewski [a clinical associate professor] is the faculty advisor for the Stony Brook Student Nurses Association and she’s really helped guide me through all the inner workings of the program,” said Zender. “Maria Milazzo [a clinical associate professor] is my faculty advisor and was the one who helped me become the representative for the Student Nurses Association. They both have helped me gain leadership experience and develop as a person. And Duke Ekblom, who’s assistant athletic director of Creative Media at Stony Brook University Athletics, has helped me grow as both a photographer and a person.”
Despite his studies, representation, and photography, Zender still finds time to volunteer in an area that’s important to him: Project Sunshine, a national volunteer program designed to bring joy and play to pediatric patients.
“Our chapter helps with pediatric patients in the hospital,” he said. “We make gift baskets that we send and we do Zoom calls where we put on shows and play with the kids. And we also started in-person volunteering at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital. That club has a special place in my heart.”
Years after undergoing life-saving treatment, Zender is back at Stony Brook laying the groundwork for a rewarding and impactful future.
“My time at Stony Brook has been one of the best experiences of my life,” he said. “I’ve met a ton of passionate people and everyone wants to help each other. It’s a community that has made me very passionate about being a Seawolf.”
— Robert Emproto