Jill Conley was 31-years old when she was diagnosed with stage IIIB breast cancer. She and her husband Bart started Jill’s Wish to help others like her.
You were diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer about three months after marrying your husband, Bart. Can you describe the emotional impact that had on both of you?
After Bart and I learned about my diagnosis and its stage, we became so much closer. We were both scared, and we knew I was about to go through so much medically, emotionally, and physically. I remember we both would fall asleep holding one another so tight every night. I felt so safe with him, and knew I was not going to go through this journey alone.
Immediately after you had a double mastectomy, you talked about feeling like “you didn’t have any pride left.” How did that change over time?
I didn’t realize I was not going to be able to do even the simplest everyday things after my surgery. Things we take for granted, like going to the bathroom and wiping yourself. Everything I did now was an ultimate challenge, and I needed Bart’s help to do it. So, when I say I had no pride left, it was the fact that I felt so helpless and needy, much felt like how our elders feel when they have to depend on others to bathe and feed them. I truly felt like a baby in a grown-up’s body.
As time went by, I gained my strength back and the doctors removed my drains. Once I could start doing everything on my own again, I began to feel like myself. But there were still several times when I couldn’t do something, and sometimes I’d cry to Bart about feeling and looking “ugly.” Even though I was bald, had no eyebrows or eyelashes and had gained several pounds from chemo, he would not hear any of my complaints or stand for me to even have these self doubts about my appearance. It didn’t take long for me to realize he was right. I had just put my body through hell and back, and I was still alive.
I learned how to put on my makeup and draw in eyebrows and started to accessorize my head scarves with my outfits. When we would go out, I would just walk into the room with my head held high and act so confidently that some might have never known what I have just been through. When I started to get my confidence back, I felt so beautiful inside and it shined through me on the outside.
You were invited to participate in a photo shoot in Paris that was captured in the documentary “The Light that Shines,” which quickly went viral. What do you think about the reaction you’ve gotten from the media in response to sharing your story?
After the “Light that Shines” went viral and the phone start ringing off the hook from the news stations, newspapers, and other media outlets, I was overwhelmed with joy and happiness. I knew I was going to be able to tell my story, and hopefully help change someone’s life regardless of whether they had cancer or not.
I have always been a caretaker. I have always wanted to help people in any way I could. So it has been a blessing meeting people, hearing their stories, and encouraging them; especially the ones who tell me how much I’d made a difference in their lives, just through the documentary alone. I really feel like I was chosen to be on this journey and to be a voice, and I feel I have succeeded. It is empowering to take something you went through that was so bad and so hard and turn it into such a positive, uplifting outcome.
How did the idea for the nonprofit organization, Jill’s Wish, come about, and how has it made a difference for women with breast cancer?
After we appeared on the “Today Show,” my email was flooded with stories from all around the world. And not just breast cancer stories. They were about men, women, and children who were going through some kind of life-altering situation, and they were looking for someone to listen and give them advice. After reading hundreds of these stories, I told Bart we had to start our own foundation so we could at least help families who are going through the same thing as we were. I also noticed several of the emails were about body and appearance insecurities. Going through what I went through, I knew exactly how those people were feeling and thinking. So I thought, why not share my personal story and use it and Jill’s Wish to spread the message that we are all beautiful no matter what we are going through?
The first time someone stopped me at the airport, and knew who I was, she just grabbed my hands, looked into my eyes and said “Thank you so much, Jill, for sharing your story, because I am a cancer survivor and you have no idea how much it has helped me.” That’s when I knew Jill’s Wish was helping women everywhere, not just the women who receive our grant money. I am overjoyed when I receive letters and gifts from strangers whom I have never met, but who have taken the time to send me these unbelievable things. They are all so grateful and thankful for what I am giving all of my energy and time to do, and it makes it all worth it. I am just trying to help everyone go through this journey of life with nothing but love and support.
Jill Conley was 31-years old when she was diagnosed with stage IIIB #breastcancer. She and her husband Bart started @JillsWish to help others like her.Click to tweet
One of my favorite Jill’s Wish stories was when we helped a cancer survivor named Vonda. She had been battling this horrible disease for so many years, and at one of her doctor’s visits, she was told that she and her family needed to take a family vacation because her prognosis was not looking good. She called me on the phone and I could feel her pain. I knew she was in a financial pickle and really wanted to go on this vacation. After discussing her situation with my wonderful board members, I got the go-ahead to help. I still remember the phone call when I told her we would be sending a check and she could make this vacation happen. We also called another wonderful non-profit organization, The Karen Wellington Foundation, and they helped pay for some of the expenses. Months later, I went to one of my own chemo appointments and Vonda and her entire family were all there waiting for me. When I walked into the room I was showered with hugs and kisses. I have never seen so much gratitude in my life. I am happy to say that Vonda is still fighting for her life, and she is one special lady who I now consider my sister and a dear friend.
Although you went into remission for about a year, you were later diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer back in 2012. How do you stay positive in spite of this?
I really think the Jill’s Wish Foundation keeps me going. Trust me, I have many days when I get down and out, but I pull through knowing I am doing something I love by giving back. And, I have the best support system around me. I am so blessed with my family and friends. I am also so grateful to Dan Dahlen and Jim Sheehy for helping get Jill’s Wish going and establishing the foundation. I have such an incredible group of board members, team members, and volunteers that make everything possible. I am also incredibly indebted to Dana Donofree, who serves as my co-chair. Dana is the owner and founder of AnaOno Intimates, and we met when she reached out to me to be a part of her launch of her lingerie line for women who’ve had mastectomies and reconstruction. Since then, she has become a wonderful friend, confidant and cheerleader – not to mention, AnaOno is our biggest corporate sponsor and gives so much to Jill’s Wish.
Can you give us an update on how you’re managing your health these days?
In the last month, I had to get a pain pump put in surgically because the pain in my back, caused from the fluid in my lung, was chronic and unbearable. The pump has helped me out a lot. My doctor also had to change my chemo treatment when my last PET scan showed the cancer was spreading in my liver. Since this new treatment, I have been feeling pretty good. I still have a lot of bad days, but not as many as I did with the previous chemo. On the good days, I just work as many hours as I can to help Jill’s Wish grow and become more successful.
Do you have any goals that you want to share with people?
My goals for this year are to see our foundation grow bigger and to be able to have the funds to help more and more families out. I also would love to be on the Ellen Show!