I met Jill on the b_inspired Cancer Warriors Retreat to Mexico. Here is her story…
Tell us your story / stats:
I had my first conversation with my doctor when I was 30. Both grandmothers and my paternal aunt had had breast cancer so I knew I wanted to be proactive in getting mammograms. My doctor decided we would do a baseline mammogram at age 35. That day came and I got my first mammogram done and I went home, got on Facebook and posted about my great experience. Then about an hour later I got a call saying they needed me to go back in for more pictures on one side. So I went back in and the radiologist brought me into a room (I was alone) and he showed me what they found. He said, “20% of these are nothing, 20% are cancer and everything else is in between so we need to do a biopsy to find out what we are dealing with.” My eyes filled with tears but I didn’t let them go. It wasn’t the worst news yet so I got myself together and scheduled the biopsy. That very first mammogram saved my life. It was earliest possible stage cancer and the only way it could have been found was with a mammogram. Had I waited until age 40 to get my first one done, I guess I could have been dead by then. My sisters flew from Idaho to San Diego to go to my first appointment at the cancer center with me and thank God they did! I didn’t hear a word the surgeon said. She sounded like the teacher in the Peanuts cartoons!!! The first order of business was to get BRCA testing done. If I was positive for the gene I was going to have to have a mastectomy. If negative I could choose a lumpectomy and radiation or the mastectomy. I thought for sure it would be positive because it was on both sides of my family but I was negative. So I opted for the lumpectomy and radiation. 7 surgeries and 7 years later I am just having to accept the fact that my body is never going to look perfect and I just need to be happy to be healthy and alive.
C aside, tell us about yourself. What makes you, YOU!
I have an optimistic, very outgoing personality. I dyed my hair hot pink after C and it has stuck. It has become a big part of who I am! I don’t like to blend in anywhere. I live my life full of light and love and I just try to put it out into the world every single day.
What went through your head when you were first diagnosed?
Complete shock. I was alone when I got the call. I first called my sister who didn’t answer. Then my best friend. She didn’t answer. My third call was to my Dad who picked up and he was the first one I told. I couldn’t stop crying. We lost my 17 year old stepbrother 3 weeks after he had been diagnosed with testicular cancer 7 years earlier. I’ve never asked him what was going through his mind during that call but he was amazing. He reassured me that I would be fine and that I have love and support from a big family who would help me get through it.
What are some of your personal coping skills during difficult times?
Self love. I have learned I have to take care of myself. I need to get mani-pedis, massages and my hair done on a regular basis. I put makeup on and clothes that make me feel strong and powerful.
Tell us about your support system. Or lack of. Where do you get your support from?
This was the hardest part of my journey with cancer. I have no family in San Diego. They all live in Idaho so it’s not like they can just drive here. My two best friends in SD, I had known for 10 years and they ended up being nowhere to be found. I even asked them for help and they weren’t there. Not one day in 6 weeks of me going to radiation did either of them offer to go with me. My own therapist even drove me one day because she knew I was struggling with not having a support system. I don’t speak to either of those friends anymore. If they couldn’t be there for me when I was at my lowest, they certainly don’t get me at my best. My sister and nephews came down for a week of radiation and my best friend came for another week. A few other friends really stepped up but they all have busy lives. My friend Shannon did the most thoughtful thing for me that I will cherish for the rest of my life: a couple days before I started radiation she showed up at my house with a huge wooden board with a whole bunch of little rectangles tacked to it in rows. She gave me instructions that each day I needed to take a rectangle off and look underneath. She had 6 rows of 7 rectangles. The top of Row 1 underneath the paper was a picture of a hot guy with a message that said, “Okay Jill…it’s game time. Time to show up and kick some ass.” Then on day 1 she had a picture she had printed of me with people I love that she pulled off Facebook and a notecard with an inspirational quote. She had a different one for each day of the 6 weeks!! Underneath she had painted a huge sunset on the wooden board that I still have!! There were so many days I had do drive to radiation by myself and on those days I took the picture and the quote with me and when I was lying on the table I would think about the person from the picture and it helped me feel less alone. This gift she gave me was an immense help in trying to keep my spirits up and for that, I will be loyal to her for the rest of my life!! I certainly learned who my friends are…and who they aren’t…during my treatment and beyond. I learned that even though it was hard for me, I had to ask for help when I needed it and that’s not something I was used to. I learned that when someone is going through something difficult like a diagnosis or a death or whatever, just pick up the phone and ask how they are doing. Ask if they need anything. I think some people weren’t there for me because they didn’t know what to say or do and that was much worse than saying or doing anything “wrong.”
What have you learned about yourself since dx?
How strong I am. Who my friends are. That I can do anything I set my mind to. Not to sweat the small stuff. Relationships with family, friends and most importantly myself are what matter most in life.
What do you believe is a common misconception about being diagnosed? Or something that you’d like the general population to know about C.
It’s that once you have “beaten it” it’s still not over. The emotional scars are the hardest to get past and it takes a really long time.
Thoughts on the pink…
Well…pink IS my color and I love it!! I have worked with Susan G Komen SD volunteering, doing some speaking and was a Grants Committee Member for a year. They are doing great work in our community. I saw it first hand.
Where are you at in life now? Mentally, physically, emotionally…
I am happier and healthier than I have ever been in my entire life! I just had my 7 year anniversary and was only finally released by my oncologist at the beginning of this year. It was the BEST feeling I think I have ever had…knowing this was all finally behind me! I struggled with loneliness for such a long time but connecting with other breast cancer survivors helped me tremendously! I just started seeing my therapist again only once a month just to make sure I stay on track emotionally.
Do you have any lasting side effects- mental, physical, etc.?
I feel a little Frankenstein-ish from all of the scars from surgeries but they have become a part of me. I have decided that scars are what make people interesting and that makes them beautiful because they tell a story!
If you could send a message to yourself from 10 years ago… how would that go?
Dear Jill, you are stronger than you ever thought possible and there is nothing you can’t endure. You are going to get a diagnosis in a few years that will terrify you but just do the work and get through it and you will come through the other side a new person who will appreciate everything good in your life so much more. Try not to get stuck in the loneliness mainframe. You have a lot of people who love you and even though they may not be physically there with you, they will be loving you and cheering you on and supporting you from wherever they are.
What are you passionate about? Is this different than what you were passionate about before dx?
I’m passionate about teaching people to take responsibility for their own health by knowing their family history and being proactive about getting screened. I’m passionate about giving back. I volunteer with Operation Smile on missions around the world. I’m also passionate about living each day to the fullest and just focusing on joy! Yes…my perspective has definitely changed since cancer.
Do you have any short term or long term goals that you are actively working towards?
Just hoping to meet the man of my dreams any day now!! I know how precious life is and I want to share the rest of my life with someone exceptional!
Do you have a favorite quote, mantra, phrase, or curse word?
When I was going through radiation I would say to myself over and over in my head when the machine was on…”light…love…warm energy.” Instead of thinking about poisonous radiation going through my body I chose to see it as me being filled up with light, love and warm energy and I think that helped me a lot!!
Whenever the day comes to travel to the “great beyond”, what do you hope people remember about you?
That I was a bright light in this world who loved with everything in me. I was a great partner, friend, sister and auntie. And I lived my life to the fullest!
Would you like to share one of your shittiest moments/memories? The raw side of C.
I remember after my 2nd surgery my sister had to fly back to Idaho and my girlfriends were nowhere to be found. I had to get groceries and was only like 2 days out of surgery. I couldn’t lift much so I had to make 2 trips from the car and I remember dropping the bags on the floor, kicking the door shut, sitting down on the floor and crying for an hour. I was exhausted and in pain and I have never felt more alone or more helpless in my life. I was going to be starting radiation soon so there was fear of the unknown too. It was just a low, low moment.
If people take away anything from your story, it would be…
Know your body. Know your family history. Get screened…even if it’s before screening is “recommended.” My very first mammogram saved my life!