Editor’s note: This is one in a continuing series of stories chronicling Jill Brzezinski-Conley’s attempt to live her life on her terms in the face of terminal breast cancer. You can follow her story from the beginning at courier-journal.com/jillconley.
In the cold of winter, Jill Brzezinski-Conley lay in a hospital bed, breathless and weak from the cancer that had invaded her bones and lungs, and fearing she was about to die.
But with spring, came an unexpected reprieve. Her breath and strength returned, giving her hope for a little more time, and a renewed clarity on how she will spend her final days — strengthening her charity, Jill’s Wish, so it continues to help others long after she is gone.
“When my health did a nose-dive, it was a huge wake-up call,” said Conley. “Now, I’m back on track. I want to make Jill’s Wish my life.”
Conley started the nonprofit last year, turning an idea into an organization that has raised tens of thousands of dollars to help defray everyday expenses for families battling cancer. Her mother, Rosemary Duchon, who has suffered with her daughter through the ups and downs of cancer, said the charity is “what’s keeping her going.”
“There’s nothing that makes her happier than helping other people out. This has just been a godsend,” said Duchon, of Las Vegas. “I just can’t think of anything that she would love better than to know other families are struggling less, because she knows what it’s like to struggle.”
Duchon views Jill’s Wish as a lasting legacy — a way to provide real help to people in need — but she knows it won’t save her daughter. Cancer decides what comes next, and may cancel any plans, including a belated Mother’s Day visit planned for later this month.
“There’s all this uncertainty. You’re in this constant state of limbo,” Duchon said, adding that while Jill “kind of downplays everything because she doesn’t want me to worry … there’s this connection when you feel like something’s wrong. …It’s like the umbilical cord never goes away.”
Born of generosity
When Conley lived in Las Vegas and worked as a bartender, Duchon recalled, she once walked by an elderly, wheelchair-bound couple at a casino and handed each of them $20 from her tips, saying, “Here, have fun.”
Cancer reinforced Conley’s compassion. Losing her hair and breasts to treatment made her feel less than beautiful, and she realized many cancer patients felt the same way.
After doctors declared her cancer incurable, Conley decided to spread the message that beauty is defined by confidence, love and kindness and can’t be erased by illness.
She shared this message in a video that went viral on the Internet, and then broadened her audience through speaking engagements and television appearances. People have responded by the thousands.
After Conley appeared on the Today Show in early 2013, other cancer survivors inundated her with emails, some describing financial struggles. Her husband, Bart, said he and Jill instantly related because cancer had forced Jill to quit her job as a leasing consultant, reducing their income when they needed it most.
“Money becomes your focus,” said Bart, who has since also lost his job, “and you have this monster over your head with the cancer.”
From that, Jill’s Wish was born as a way to move beyond the message, to action.
By fall, the organization achieved federal non-profit tax status and started holding fundraisers such as a golf scramble, Christmas parties and booths at community events — raising more than $50,000. Conley has made an appearance at every event, soaking in the crowd’s energy.
Duchon stood with Conley on stage during one fundraiser and recalled, “she was just glowing.”
Through e-mail and word-of-mouth, they found people in need, and their efforts spread beyond breast cancer victims to those with all types of cancer. Their seven recipients so far include Pam Eisenback, 47, of Taylorsville, Ky., a school cafeteria worker and mother of three who is fighting early-stage breast cancer for the second time.
Eisenback has had two mastectomies after doctors discovered cancer in her left breast in 2012 and in her right breast last fall. Even though Eisenback has insurance, she said the co-pays and other medical expenses were “just overwhelming,” and she felt blessed to receive $1,000 from Jill’s Wish.
“She’s such an inspiration to me,” said Eisenback. “Now, I need to find out what I can do to help people.”
Setbacks awaken generosity
Conley admits she pushes herself too hard — and her husband, mother and other family members warn her she must put her health first more often. During October she traveled almost non-stop for events tied to breast-cancer awareness month — until her worsening health stopped her cold.
She grew shorter and shorter of breath just after Thanksgiving, with tests revealing that her cancer had spread to the lining of her lungs. Duchon flew to Louisville with other family and friends to be with her for what all feared would be her last Christmas.
No sooner had Duchon returned to Las Vegas then Conley landed in Norton Suburban Hospital, spending eight days there in early January. Doctors inserted a chest tube to drain fluid and treated her for an infection in her abdomen.
Conley said she felt “like I was going downhill fast.”
Duchon bought a return ticket to Louisville, but canceled the flight when Conley was released from the hospital.
Around the same time, Bart lost his logistics job at the freight-shipping company DB Schenker, along with the couple’s health insurance. Conley got on Medicare, but medical bills mounted; one medicine they got for a $15 co-pay with Bart’s insurance suddenly cost them $400 out-of-pocket.
But after that was mentioned in a February update in The Courier-Journal, the community came to their rescue. Local companies contacted Bart with job leads, and community members sent donations totaling more than $3,000.
Virginia Hunt of the Westwood subdivision helped organize a yard sale, with friends and neighbors donating items. Most people paid more than the posted prices, and some simply gave money, for a total of $640 in all.
“One incredibly generous woman bought something for $4. She handed me money and said, ‘Keep the change,’ and left,” Hunt said. “When I looked, she had given us $104 … and two coupons for Dominoes pizzas!”
As Bart continues his job search, the donations supplement his unemployment, her Social Security disability and their dwindling savings.
Bart gets choked up talking about the community’s outpouring of generosity, which Jill called “amazing.”
Strength to reach out
Jill noticed she was gaining strength as the long, cold winter finally began to thaw.
The fluid in her lung subsided. She got a prescription for Adderall to help keep up her energy, and an epidural nerve block for severe back pain.
“Now I’m feeling so much better I want to knock out everything,” she said. “This spring and summer I want to do as much as possible.”
Though “overjoyed” about her daughter’s renewed strength, Duchon wonders sometimes if Conley might be sugar-coating slightly to make her feel better.
“I always have this hesitation,” Duchon said. “The cancer is lurking there. It’s going to come back. But I’m happy she’s going through one of her good spells.”
Still, Duchon can’t help but worry about Conley resuming her community appearances.
In April, the Conleys were special guests at the annual Pink & White Game, a flag football match-up between Assumption High School and Sacred Heart Academy — with half-time dance shows by boys from Trinity and St. Xavier high schools — that raises money for Norton Cancer Institute’s breast health program, where Conley gets her care. She and her family sold bracelets for Jill’s Wish and walked out on the field before the game to release balloons.
During Derby Week, Conley was one of 140 women at the Oaks Day Survivors Parade, and she was a VIP in the Pegasus Parade, riding down Broadway with Bart in a Corvette convertible, waving as voices in the crowd shouted: “Jill, we love you!”
She said she wouldn’t have traded the experience. But the flurry of crowds and activity left her nauseous and feverish for days reminding her of what lies ahead.
Leaving a legacy
In whatever time she has left, Conley plans to do all she can to ensure Jill’s Wish outlives her.
“If she didn’t have this to do, she would be thinking of her illness,” said Bart’s brother Pat Conley of Louisville. “It’s hard to do stuff like that when she’s not feeling well. But as long as she can do it, she should.”
Ideally, Bart said, they would like to raise $300,000 a year and give out about $200,000, at an average of $2,000 per person. They are now developing a formal application process for recipients.
Jeff Ashley, founder of the nonprofit consulting firm Ashley Rountree and Associates, volunteered to help expand the charity after reading about Conley, and said their financial goals sound reasonable. He’s helping the 10-member board of directors map out strategies to reach these goals.
The charity is ramping up its fundraising efforts, planning a 5K Run/Walk for Jill’s Wish in July and a golf outing in September.
Next week, the Conleys plan to travel to Philadelphia to help another breast cancer survivor, Dana Donofree, launch her company selling lingerie for women undergoing cancer treatment. Donofree plans to contribute 10 percent of each sale to Jill’s Wish.
“Some groups go from zero to 120 very quickly,” Ashley said of nonprofit causes. “I wouldn’t expect this to be the next Susan B. Komen type of thing, but there’s an expectation this will grow.
“When she’s gone, and when we’re all gone, this can help many people.”
Reporter Laura Ungar can be reached at (502)582-7190. Follow her on Twitter @lauraungarcj.
Jill’s Wish events
Jill’s Wish Inaugural 5K Walk/Run
• When: Saturday, July 19, 8:30 a.m.
• Where: Iroquois Park
• Fees: $25 race fee plus $2.50 sign-up fee; or $30 race fee plus $2.50 sign-up fee for the “virtual” run/walk for long-distance supporters who want to do the walk from home. (Each receives a race T-shirt and bib.)
Jill’s Wish Golf Classic 2014
• When: Friday, September 26, noon
• Where: Covered Bridge Golf Club, 12410 Covered Bridge Road, Sellersburg, Ind.
• Fees: $250 for an individual, $800 for a team of four
• Info: Contact Jim Sheehy at [email protected]
Jill’s Wish on the web: http://jillswish.org/; https://www.facebook.com/JillsWish
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