Jillian worked in the glamour business as a beauty expert and product spokesperson in the media, until a run in with cancer changed her outlook and her beauty profile.
I’ve always been a happy go lucky person, upbeat and positive. I love life, my job, my husband. About a year before my diagnosis, in my later 40s, I was starting to grapple with aging in the beauty industry. Although I had a wonderful job and an amazing career, I began to feel unhappy and self-conscious. Then the company I was working for was sold and the position I considered the pinnacle of a long career was dissolved. The industry was changing quickly, and the roles that valued my expertise were fading away to the Instagram generation. For the first time, I started to feel depressed, wondering what I would do now. I kept thinking it couldn’t get any worse than that, but then…
I felt a lump on my breast. A biopsy came back benign, so I didn’t worry about it. But, after a year of moping around, lying on the couch filled with insecurity, my husband urged me to get up and get back in the game. He was right, and the first thing I needed to do was address the lump, as it had gotten a lot bigger. I assumed it was a cyst and needed to be drained, so I went back to the gynecologist.
My doctor was very reassuring when she called me. “Are you sitting down?” she asked. “You have cancer. But don’t worry. I’m going to get you to the right people.” The cancer had already started to invade my lymph nodes. Honestly, I think my state of mind was actually egging the cancer along. I had gotten into such a downward spiral emotionally, had lost my way and fallen down the rabbit hole. Then this came along and sent me even further down the hole.
It was such a strange day and I was in such a weird state of mind. I wanted her to write me a prescription for Xanax right away. That’s what came out of me. It was weird. When my husband came home, I told him, and that’s when it all started to become real. It’s such a blur. I wasn’t sad or upset or angry. It was more like getting a flat tire — huh, now what?
After that we flipped into high gear. We had to get all the appointments on the calendar to go see an oncologist, a surgeon, etc. That doctor can’t see you but this one will. He’s not available until whenever but she can only see you at this time. You have to get multiple opinions and then start mapping out the plan. And we had to juggle the insurance issue too. Just to add to the stress, although we had insurance, we were told it was a pre-existing condition, and we were weren’t covered. It was horrific, and so many of us fall into this category. To choose loosing everything to survive is a situation no one should ever be in, or not having any means to be treated, its all devastating, and the system is so broken.
I didn’t tell anyone about my diagnosis right away. I needed time to get used to it and get a plan in place. When you are sick, everyone wants to rally and its beautiful. But I didn’t want anyone worrying, and I needed a minute to breath, so kept it to myself for a while. I also made a conscious decision to flush out all the negativity in my life. I needed to love my cancer away, to let it teach me and figure out what I needed to know while I was in the process of being deconstructed. It was an interesting time.
Most of the doctors I saw were very matter of fact. Here’s this option and here’s that. But, when you’re talking about my body, that’s not very comforting. One doctor approached it with great compassion and a very individual standpoint. She made me feel safe and understood. She felt a mastectomy was not needed based on the location of the cancer, and the fact that I was BRCA negative. That felt much better so, I went with her. Her approach was 16 rounds of neoadjuvant chemo to shrink the tumors, followed by two lumpectomies and a lymph node dissection. Then 7 weeks of radiation, and the after meds. The whole process lasted about a year and a half, not counting the after meds, which I stopped taking after a 1 year because I suffered debilitating side effects
At the hospital where I was being treated, when you start, they hand you this folder with schedules and info about the drugs and all that. I remember looking at the pamphlet and feeling I had nothing in common with the patient on the cover. There she was sitting in her chemo hat and in her robe smiling and looking elegant in that sterile patient sort of way. It was very foreign and sort of a trigger for me. It wasn’t about the hair or the breast, it was just very foreign looking.
I started treatment the following week. The team was great, but I didn’t want a port — something sticking out of me was just too distressing — which meant dealing with needles all the time, the worst part for me. That, and being thrust into menopause overnight.
When all the treatment was done, they put me on Tamoxifen, but I couldn’t take it. I had a rare side effect of suicidal thoughts. It was so frightening, I remember thinking I could just drive into that tree or off that bridge. Luckily, I recognized those thoughts and knew they weren’t normal. I called my doctor and she took me off of it. She switched to Arimidex, which can cause all sorts of body issues, weight gain, chronic pain, osteoporosis, joint stiffness. Unfortunately I had all of them, and made the difficult decision to stop taking the drugs. I know many women take the after drugs and don’t have the same issues. It’s very individual, and a very personal decision.
Looking Good, For a Baldy
The hardest part about the whole thing was watching my husband go through it. He was such a support to me. He’s very manly and has this strong moral compass and get it done attitude — a good, solid man. But I saw it in his face, the fear and the exhaustion. He gets angry when he is afraid, and I remember hearing him swearing at God when the doctors needed to go back in to get wider margins after my second surgery. He was so angry, not that he couldn’t take it anymore, but he couldn’t imagine me having to go back for more. When you are the patient, you have stuff to worry about and there are things to do, but spouses and love ones, they are there feeling it. You don’t want to see your loved ones go through it.
Treatment wasn’t easy. On rough days when I couldn’t get out of bed, when I had those flu-like symptoms, I just stayed in bed. I had a bell by the bed, and my husband just took care of me. But on good days, I just got up and did things. I had a ball. I used to go out made up and bald thinking I was fine, I’m fabulous. Ignorance is bliss, I guess. Steroids made my skin look amazing, another one of the drugs I took gave my skin a deeper tone so I appeared tan, healthy, lean and looking good, for a baldy! Chemo and all the other drugs totally change your metabolism. I stayed lean during treatment, but then gained 25 pounds afterwards on the hormone suppressant drugs.
The length of cancer treatment surprised me. It feels like it’s never ending. Before cancer, my thought the process was they take off your breast and then you have surgery to replace it, and during chemo you lose your hair and then it grows back. I didn’t realize the length of all the horrible work on the body, the process of it all. I never understood what people went through, and no one really tells you what to anticipate. They softly push you into taking care of the cancer and don’t tell you that the drugs can do this or that.
Chemo brain is very real. For the first 6 months to a year, it was obvious — keys would be in the refrigerator, or I’d have put the toast away in the cabinet, wacky stuff. Now, it’s more like a repetitiveness or not being able to process thoughts as fast as I used to. But there are no real patterns to it, just a sense of deficit. It doesn’t bother me as much that the brain isn’t functioning as well as it used to as that my body doesn’t function properly. I was always a little flighty, so no one is noticing anything drastic. But the physical symptoms bother me more. The doctors keep promising me it’s going to get better, but I still feel like I’m 70 when I am only 53. I feel old and I have no estrogen so I’m not plump and juicy anymore.
And then there is the lymphedema. I wish we had talked about that in advance. They said it was so unlikely that I would get it, and not to worry about it, but I got it. The doctor said, “You are lean, your body type shouldn’t get it, just be careful.” But I did. I was lifting a paperweight and I got it. My arm and hand are forever swollen, and I have to wear a compression sleeve. The afterlife is hard. I was a champ through the process. Now I tend to give in to complaining.
Out of the Chysalis
One of my best friends is a photographer and while I was being treated, I asked her to come over and document the process for me. I was sick, bald, and there was no way I was going to get another job in front of the camera. She came over every week whether I felt good or not and created some of the most beautiful images. Together we watched a metamorphosis happen. The sense that I am aging and don’t feel beautiful, that insecurity turned into a confident woman. The photos got more and more powerful as my old image went away. It was like I was cracking through the ego shell because there was nothing left. I didn’t have a career, didn’t have money. I was just trying to stay alive, like the butterfly coming out of the chrysalis.
That is what got me through, that process that we did every week, and learning from it.
I loved what working with my friend, Michelle, did for me and wanted to give back, to offer this to other women. We weren’t sure anyone would want to do it, but I have makeup expertise, and Michele is an amazing photographer. We went to a support group to offer our services and thought maybe someone would sign up. The entire group signed up! We were overwhelmed. But ok, fake it till you make it. We just started doing these photo sessions, and they were amazing. Unfortunately, women had to wait. The 30 that signed up would tell others, “I did the Metamorphosis and it was amazing,” and then someone else would sign up. We posted on Facebook and it kept growing and growing. It felt like it was important, like “synchronicity and divine purpose,” but it quickly got bigger than us.
We realized that we needed to create a non-profit organization and I had to go back to work. Michelle was going through a tough time herself, and we couldn’t handle all the women. It was costing a lot of money out of our pockets, and our pockets were empty. We began to hone our offering, how we approached it, what we were offering to any woman with breast cancer, and realized it was better suited for after treatment. We came to understand the social, sexual, psychological and emotional ramifications of life after breast cancer, and wanted to help address those. Most people don’t understand the ramifications to the feminine psyche when your body is torn to shreds, you’re in chronic pain, you’ve had multiple surgeries, maybe they’ve taken your ovaries, and you no longer feel like yourself.
What we offer is really photo therapy. We work with women who have forgotten how to love themselves and give them a photo therapy session. It takes about 5 hours with each woman, and another 10 of ours, to create these amazing images. We put them into these beautiful scenarios, make them feel like supermodels, pull out their mojo so they can wear it for the day, see their beautiful selves. It acts as a way to kickstart who they are. It’s not a makeover, it’s a reminder. There are times when it feels overwhelming, but I know its benefitting women. Our testimonials are through the roof, and the divine purpose is there — the waiting list is a year long — so we can’t stop, so long as we have funding. It’s a sisterhood. Every woman just wants to feel beautiful and have a reminder of that experience.
Learn more about Beautiful Self, how Jillian and Michelle empower cancer survivors, and how to participate or donate to help others.