What do you think of when you hear the word cancer? Cancer is equivalent to death in the eyes of society. Cancer not only physically takes over a person, it also mentally overpowers them with the intimidating fear of death. Sometimes, mature adults revert to victims of shame and pity when cancer strikes. This humiliation forces cancer patients to hide their illness with wigs, for example, in order to avoid being vulnerable to pitying remarks from their friends and family. People look and treat individuals with severe illnesses as if they are already on their deathbed. These subconscious attitudes from others prevent the patient from breaking free of the life-dominating illness. Jill Costello, however, is a courageous example of someone who overcame her own shame and fear about cancer.
Imagine sitting in your doctor’s waiting room just to check up on a minor stomach pain, and you find out that something terrible is wrong; some completely unexpected news hits you like a brick wall. One of my brother’s old high school classmates, Jillian Costello, just graduated from University of California, Berkeley this past year. Throughout her college career, Jill was a successful coxswain on the Cal women’s varsity crew team, contributing her constant motivation to lead her boat to numerous triumphs. A coxswain is an essential part of the rowing team. The coxswain not only navigates and steers the boat, but he or she encourages the rowers with rhythmic and strategic calls to keep the eight rowers moving together at the quickest rate possible. According to Jill’s Cal coach Dave O’Neill, “She’s as good an athlete as I’ve ever had as a coxswain” (Sports Illustrated). However, one day, Jill went into the doctor thinking she just had a bad stomachache from crew- and school-related stress. Her prognosis turned out to be much worse: stage four lung cancer. Jill never smoked a day in her life. Since this prognosis was such a frightful surprise, Jill could have easily succumbed to the overpowering “kingdom of illness.” However, instead of becoming solemn or shrinking from cancer’s intimidating dominance, Jill fought back.
Jill struggled with lung cancer for one full year. To the surprise of her doctors and coaches, she continued to compete on the crew team despite the conflict with her illness. Jill said, “Life is all about how we handle the challenges we are given.” She needed strength just to make it through each day because of the side effects of her chemotherapy: fatigue, extreme nausea, and depression. But Jill still went to crew practices, even right after chemo treatments. As she kept competing in crew, she continued to fight cancer. Jill had great courage and strength in the last year of her life. After her college graduation, she asked the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation if she could become their director of public awareness. Jill started the program “Jog for Jill” and created a team called “Team Jill,” in which many supporters joined, including my family. Even though she knew her life was soon coming to an end, she did all she could to help the cause. Walking through San Francisco, I saw flyers everywhere advertising the “Jog for Jill.” These flyers were on lampposts, buses, and even on Facebook. A quote by Jill read on the flyer, “Get the word out BIG TIME.” Jill climbed and conquered the mountain of her illness by spreading the word about her unexpected sickness. She did not hide away or grow ashamed.
Yes, eventually the cancer defeated Jill physically on June 24, 2010, when she was only twenty-two years old. However, in the process, she gave an immense amount of hope and inspiration to not only her family and friends, but to all patients of major illnesses, especially those with lung cancer. Jill could have easily lost all ambition in her life knowing cancer would eventually catch up to her; instead, her ambition increased. Like a candle ignited beneath her, Jill jumped to take advantage of what she was given. She treated her illness like a difficult, but possible, journey up a mountain. Her positivity and strength rallied 5,000 people to jog, run, skip, or walk to overpower lung cancer. This jog produced $320,000 for the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation. I still wear my rubber green bracelet that says, “Jog for Jill, Beat Lung Cancer.” This bracelet reminds me of Jill’s bravery and helps me to develop courage for myself. If Jill could still find such strong determination and purpose in her life, so can I.
Although many people are burdened with severe illnesses, their struggle to beat their sickness can bring light into other peoples’ lives. Battling illness is an upward climb up a mountain. You can’t do it on your own; you need gear, padding, or even a friend’s hand to help you over a rock. There may be blinding sun or an intense snowstorm during this climb. But the climb represents one’s realization that an illness or struggle does not have to completely control one’s life. During the struggle up the mountain, one must always remember that there is a peak at the top. This peak represents the physical or mental defeat of the illness that was once all-powerful. The task of reaching that peak may not always be accomplished, but the important thing is about the journey getting there. Jill Costello taught me that.
Jill managed to reach her mountain peak. Her journey was to accomplish specific goals—graduate from U.C. Berkeley, raise awareness of lung cancer through Jog for Jill, and cox the varsity eight at nationals. Jill coxed the Cal varsity women’s boat to second place just after her final diagnosis that she only had a few weeks to live. She also brought awareness of lung cancer and the need for research to the forefront, tirelessly working with the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation planning walks and other fundraisers. Jill’s actions continue to impact many people’s lives. Sports Illustrated writer Chris Ballard quotes Jill in his article The Courage of Jill Costello:
Your life is happening right now and this is the only moment you can control…If you are constantly dwelling on something that happened in the past or feeling anxious about the future, you are missing out on YOUR LIFE. Do what makes you happy in this moment and your life will be full.
This young, petite individual was not conquered by cancer. If anything, it motivated her to go beyond her limitations. Her struggle continues to have an impact on all her friends, family, and those who have similar hardships. But more importantly, she has had an impact on lung cancer research, hopefully helping society to realize that not everyone who develops lung cancer should be stigmatized as a smoker. Her story will hopefully motivate many others to climb their own mountains of hardship.
Ballard, Chris. “After a Promising Junior Season as a – 11.29.10 – SI Vault.” Breaking News, Real-time Scores and Daily Analysis from Sports Illustrated – SI.com. Sports Illustrated. Web. 14 Apr. 2011.
“Jill Costello Passes Away from Lung Cancer – The University of California Official Athletic Site.” California Golden Bears – The University of California Official Athletic Site. Web. 17 Apr. 2011. <http://www.calbears.com/sports/w-crew/spec-rel/062410aaa.html>.