Jill McFarland wants people to hear her breast cancer story.
“Sharing your story, that’s what people remember,” the Brookfield woman said at the Oct. 17 Pink Ribbon Tea, which was presented by the Junior League of the Mahoning Valley in Canfield.
“Everybody here has their own unique story,” McFarland said. “Everybody here is limited edition, one of a kind. You all have amazing contributions and your struggles and things that make you the strong individuals that you are. I’m truly honored to be up here talking with you all today. I hope you keep meeting every year, that we’ll all be here together. We can eradicate this together.”
The candidness McFarland exhibited in telling her story was missing when Sue Berny created the Pink Ribbon Tea to honor breast cancer survivors in 1994.
“Thirty years ago, you didn’t even say, ‘breast cancer,’” Berny said
Much has changed, she said.
“We have agencies that are treating breast cancer survivors,” Berny said. “We have programs for underserved. We have a comprehensive breast care cancer center here. We have all the hospitals, Southwoods, everybody collaborates, and so it’s wonderful that it’s changed and we’re making so much progress. If diagnosed early, you have a tremendous chance of survival.”
Having McFarland speak honored her story and the work she has done to help cancer survivors and spread awareness of a host of cancer-related issues, Berny said.
“Jill has done so much in the community,” Berny said. “She’s a young mother that lives with stage four metastatic breast cancer, and she does a lot of work with the American Cancer Society (Cancer) Action Network.”
McFarland’s story is one of heartbreak and triumph, action and perseverance.
McFarland, then 36, was nine months removed from giving birth to her third child when she discovered a lump under her arm in 2015. After a mammogram, a radiologist told her the lump probably was related to breastfeeding. McFarland did not take that as the final word and talked her family doctor into ordering a biopsy. The cancer that was diagnosed had already spread to her lymph nodes.
She underwent six rounds of chemotherapy to shrink the egg-sized tumor before she could be operated on, and had a bilateral mastectomy. Thirty rounds of radiation followed, and she went on maintenance medication.
McFarland went back to her life as a wife, mother, clinical counselor and runner, and in 2019, feeling at the peak of her physical health, she registered for the Columbus Marathon.
Feeling a “sharp, excruciating pain” between the marathon’s miles seven and eight, she went to the emergency room the next day and learned she had broken her pelvis.
The pelvis healed, but then she started getting pain, numbness and weakness in her right side. Her breast cancer had returned and metastasized to her spine, ribs, pelvis, femur and skull. She underwent spinal compression surgery, was treated with high-dose radiation to the spine and had her ovaries removed.
The cancer then spread to her liver.
She is now undergoing a new treatment that she credits with reducing the size of lesions in her liver.
“I’m very hopeful that these treatments will further help to keep me here for as long as possible,” she said.
McFarland found the burden of working full time while undergoing treatments and raising her family too much, and retired from her job. But, she needed something else to do. She connected with the Cancer Action Network in 2020 and started sharing her story at public events and participating in a wide array of fundraising and lobbying efforts.
McFarland promotes improved access to care; money for research and prevention; making trials accessible to a wider range of people; screenings; and changes in healthcare coverage, governmental benefits and official reporting. She has met with members of Congress in hopes that, when faced with a cancer-related bill, “they see my face,” she said.
Brookfield trustees honored McFarland by proclaiming Oct. 13 Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day.
The proclamation notes that the average life expectancy of someone diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer is 26 months, and that of the 44,000 people expected to die of breast cancer in 2022 – 1,700 of them in Ohio – 98 percent of them will die of metastatic breast cancer.
McFarland faces these grim numbers head on.
“There’s a lot that’s unknown about metastatic breast cancer,” she said. “I will do anything to stay here.”
Brookfield Trustee Dan Suttles honored that spirit by calling McFarland, his neighbor, “one of the strongest, bravest women that I know.”