She always shined – even while getting chemo, lying in a hospital bed, or huddled beneath a blanket on her couch.
And those who knew Jill Brzezinski-Conley best say her light will shine on.
By the time I met Jill in 2013, she had been fighting breast cancer for four years, and it had lodged in her bones. I chronicled her journey for The Courier-Journal as the disease ravaged her body, invading the lining of her left lung, then the inside of her left lung, then her liver, then finally her right lung.
Hers was not a story of cancer but of true beauty, which even the cruelty of incurable illness can’t erase. She refused to let cancer define her.
What made Jill shine was not her model-pretty looks but her confidence and kindness. She never liked wearing prosthetics in her bra, or wigs on her head. She said early on: “I choose to be who I am - to be beautiful.”
She wanted everyone to feel that way.
She passionately shared that message through speaking engagements, events and television appearances in Louisville and across the nation. She saw her audience not just as cancer patients but also children who got bullied, people struggling with weight problems or disabilities - anyone who didn’t fit society’s aesthetic ideal.
She launched and built a cancer charity, Jill’s Wish, to raise money for families struggling with cancer and viewed it as her legacy.
But to readers, her legacy was her story.
Facing a disease that strikes more than 220,000 Americans a year and kills more than 40,000, she reached out to the world while also embracing those closest to her. She gracefully accepted her husband’s growing role as caregiver. She nurtured her young nieces and nephews like a mom, penning life lessons for them in journals she knew would outlast her. She held court almost constantly for visiting friends, first in her apartment and then her hospital room.
She showed everyone that while cancer could batter her body and steal her energy, it could not extinguish her light.
Cancer’s terrible toll
Charismatic yet sensitive, popular yet inclusive - family and friends say Jill was all of these things from her early days growing up in Michigan.
She moved to Las Vegas as a young adult and was as likely to jump on stage at bars to sing with a band as to give an elderly stranger a few dollars in a casino. She worked as a bartender there when she first met Bart, a tall, broad-shouldered college football standout who almost went pro. The attraction was “immediate,” Bart once told me. “Her beauty, her personality - she had the works.”
They married in 2008 and settled near Bart’s family in Kentucky. They soon began talking about having a baby, Jill’s lifelong dream. But just eight months after the wedding and a day before her 32nd birthday, doctors diagnosed her with Stage 3 cancer.
She underwent 16 grueling rounds of chemotherapy – losing her hair, fingernails, toenails, eyelashes and eyebrows. She suffered nausea, vomiting, mouth sores and hemorrhoids. Every bone in her body ached.
For the first time in her life, she felt ugly. Bart reminded her how beautiful she was as she endured one treatment after another: a double mastectomy, 31 rounds of radiation, breast implant surgery and removal of a burnt left implant. All of this bought only a short reprieve; the disease returned in her sternum.
Chemo wasn’t the worst of her treatment regimen this time. Doctors also prescribed a hormone-blocking shot that turns off ovarian function, taking away any chance of starting a family. To live, she had to give up her dream.
Then, despite everything, doctors declared her cancer incurable, and her life became palpably finite. Anger and bitterness crept in until she woke up one morning with a new perspective: “I either have to accept and embrace it, or I can’t continue.”
This realization launched her mission to spread the word about beauty, which began when an award-winning Australian photographer, her friend’s boss, flew her to Paris for a photo shoot. The photos were featured in a viral video on Jill called “The Light that Shines,” which led to appearances on “The Today Show” and social media posts by supermodels Elle Macpherson and Vanessa Lachey. Jill kept the interest alive through speaking engagements.
When her cancer reached Stage 4, she vowed to forgo chemo if it left her too nauseous, exhausted or weak to live on her terms - and she delayed treatment from time to time. She refused to wither in bed.
Bart disagreed with this decision from the beginning, and Jill also wavered.
At one point last year, she planned to tell her oncologist, Dr. Janell Seeger, to stop the chemo altogether because it was making her too sick too often - only to change her mind when the doctor offered a chemo called Doxil that only had to be given once a month.
As I sat with her in her living room a few days later, she ran her fingers through her hair and admitted, eyes moist with tears, that one of her biggest fears about taking Doxil was going bald again - giving cancer another visible victory.
But that day, she pulled a giant basket overflowing with scarves out of her bedroom closet and said that she was glad she kept them as she wrapped one around her head with practiced hands.
When cancer invaded her lung lining and then her lungs, it took Jill’s breath. When it spread to her liver, it brought weakness and pain. When it sapped her immunity, it left her vulnerable to viruses and bacteria. Stints in the hospital gradually grew more frequent, and longer. In November, she collapsed in her Norton Commons apartment, needed CPR, then suffered a seizure on the way to the hospital, but somehow rallied back. Finally, just before the New Year, she learned that the cancer had spread to her lungs and decided to stop chemo and go home on hospice care.
Until almost the very end, she kept working on Jill’s Wish, selling fundraising T-shirts to nurses in the hospital. She gave talks between hospital stays, but mostly stayed closer to home. After the community began following her story, she was a VIP guest in the pre-Derby Pegasus parade and the first speaker in a Norton Healthcare series of talks called “Go Confidently.” She also gave a talk to young women at Assumption High School, telling them: “Every one of you guys are worth it. Every one of you is so beautiful.”
Jill pushed herself hard to do all she could and paid a heavy price. Once, after a trip to Cincinnati to be honored by the Bengals football team, she woke up sopping with sweat, barely able to breathe. Oxygen tanks had to be delivered to her apartment.
She took heed of her limits at a 5K fundraiser for Jill’s Wish in 2014, where she walked beside Canadian college student Alyssa O’Brien, who has cerebral palsy and uses a walker. But less than a quarter-mile into the route, she turned back, too winded to continue. She stood beside the finish line and watched others cross without her.
It struck me how this race reflected her journey. She’d walk beside her friends and family, keep them close, as long as she possibly could.
As a favorite aunt, she invited nieces and nephews to frequent sleepovers in which they all cuddled in one big bed. She had long talks with each of them about being themselves and ignoring bullies, and filled her journal for them with recipes, observations and life lessons, such as: “You will always be beautiful if you treat everyone you meet with Love and Respect!”
She was on the receiving end of nurturing, too, especially as her cancer progressed.
Her mom, Rosemary Duchon of Las Vegas, flew into Louisville for visits, and then for the long haul as the end approached. The first day Conley was home on hospice, Duchon told her: "It just makes me so proud how you have lived. It's been a privilege to be your mother. It really has."
Bart, meanwhile, spent hours beside her in bed, holding her hands, talking to her, cuddling with her. Caregiving had by then become a central part of their relationship; Bart has done everything from helping her to the bathroom to draining fluid from her lung. And through it all she knew his love. During one of her hospitalizations, she couldn’t sleep until Bart laid down beside her in the bed.
She repeatedly told Bart to find someone new after she died, someone who could give him the long marriage and children she could not. But Bart was never ready to let her go. When she told him that she sometimes wishes she had died when she collapsed in November, he grabbed her hand and told her he wasn't ready, "couldn't have taken it then.
"If you could know how good you have been to this world, for hundreds of people..." he said, choking up. "Everybody loves you. I love you."
"I love you, too," she replied. "So much."
In her last week, Conley talked to me about faith, about how she no longer feared death because she believed in an afterlife where she will see loved ones who passed away before her and "there will be no pain or anything." Knowing she would see God, she told me, "feels good."
She left nothing unsaid with any of those close to her. She wrote goodbye letters to friends and family members to open after she died. She told everyone close to her that she loved them - her family, friends, doctor, even me, after I sat with her through a chemo session. I hugged her close that afternoon, then cried in my car after she and Bart drove away.
She told me again when I stopped by her apartment on the last day of 2015, when she thanked me for telling her story. We cried in each other's arms.
As journalists, we always try to maintain a certain distance from our subjects and not become too entwined in their lives. But Jill would never allow it. She had no time for anything but love.
And that perhaps is her greatest lesson, her greatest gift, for the rest of us.
Laura Ungar, who also covers public health for USA Today, can be reached at 502-582-7190 or on Twitter @laura_ungar.