Jill’s Legacy

Jillian Costello was, by all accounts, an inspiring and passionate young woman.

A star student at the University of California, Berkeley, Jill—as she was known to friends and family—was also a competitive athlete, serving as coxswain of the university’s varsity eight-crew boat, and a student leader within the school’s Greek system. Her passion and commitment to each of her endeavors—and to her friends and family—defined her. It was a similar passion and dedication that would mark her battle with lung cancer.

Jill was a nonsmoker with no family history of the disease when she was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer at age 21. As she faced treatment, Jill confronted the grim statistics and the stigma associated with the disease: a 15.5 percent survival rate, which has not improved in more than 40 years; a lack of funding and awareness when compared with other major cancer types; and a widespread perception that lung cancer is a disease of smokers and the elderly.

In the face of these discouraging facts, Jill was determined to effect positive change. Still pushing through the coursework required for graduation and her commitment to the crew team—not to mention a rigorous treatment schedule that included chemotherapy and radiation—Jill embraced another challenging role: cancer advocate. Hired as director of communications and awareness for the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation (BJALCF), Jill worked tirelessly to launch Jog for Jill, a 5K walk/run on the UC Berkeley campus that raised more than $46,000 for research and awareness funding, and to reach out to media outlets and pharmaceutical companies about the dire need for increased attention to lung cancer.

Jill’s college roommate and close friend, K.C. Oakley, remembers the way Jill’s grace and fortitude were evident through this difficult time, as she fought her own battle and took on the larger role of advocacy. “Jill’s conditions were tougher than one could ever expect or imagine,” K.C. says, “and, as her roommate, I saw her struggle to get out of bed every day. I knew she was always tired from chemotherapy and radiation, but even with her deteriorating body her love for life and the people around her helped her break through with endless smiles.”

Sadly, Jill’s journey ended far too quickly. She passed away on June 24, 2010, a year after her initial diagnosis. Now, inspired by her legacy of courage, action, and passion, a committed group comprising many of Jill’s closest friends and other young adults affected by the lung cancer diagnosis of a loved one has come together to ensure that Jill’s advocacy efforts and brilliant spirit will continue to make a difference. Jill’s Legacy, a subsidiary of BJALCF, was created in December 2010 to honor Jill’s courage and to raise funds and awareness for lung cancer among young people.

“Jill left us with a clear message: to beat lung cancer,” says Darby Anderson, one of Jill’s closest friends, who now serves on the board of Jill’s Legacy. The foundation’s mission, Darby says, is simple: “to be the driving force in significantly increasing the stagnant 15.5 percent survival rate of the world’s number one cancer killer.”

To that end Jill’s Legacy is working to fund a series of Jog for Jill events on college campuses across the country, to promote research related to early-detection methods and promising treatments, and to change the widely held perception that lung cancer is a disease of smokers and the elderly. “Anyone can get lung cancer, and it is our job to raise awareness about this fact so that fundraising efforts can be applied to research that will later help save lives,” K.C. says.

In addition to raising much-needed awareness and funds, Jill’s Legacy will focus on making a difference for patients facing a diagnosis today. Equally important as the research and advocacy efforts, says board member Kristina Renda, “is our goal to be a source of support to people who are battling lung cancer right now. We want to help in any way we possibly can to make the lives of people with lung cancer that much easier.”

Lung cancer survivor Taylor Bell—who, like Jill, was an otherwise healthy, athletic nonsmoker when she was diagnosed at 21 and now serves on the Jill’s Legacy board—knows well the many challenges the organization will face as well as the critical need for change. “When you advocate for lung cancer, it can sometimes get discouraging because it feels like you are screaming at the top of your lungs (or lung), and no one is listening,” she says. But backing down, Taylor knows—as Jill did—is not an option. Having been given the opportunity to continue the fight, Taylor is determined to carry on through Jill’s Legacy: “Jill would never want us to give up. Lung cancer took her from us way too soon, but she never gave up the fight, and neither will we.”