The Courage of Jill Costello
What's your inspiration?
On the 29th July 2012, as many eyes were focused on the London Olympics watching and being inspired by athletes pushing themselves to their max, there was a young woman with her own inspiration, about to embark on the longest journey of her life. This journey took as much, if not more mental and physical strength. Kelsey Harrison set off to travel the breadth of the United States, running. She set off on The Great Lung Run from New York City and head west, reaching San Francisco in November. She covered an astonishing 30 miles a day, for over 90 days, covering a 3,500 mile journey.
We all need motivation to get ourselves going and to challenge ourselves. Some will get it from watching athletes perform at the top of their game, others will be motivated to strive for a better quality of health and life and then some others will be moved by truly inspirational friends or stories of true grit and determination to overcome unfair illness. In Kelsey’s case it was her good friend Jill Costello, a genuinely worthy inspiration.
The following article was originally written by Chris Ballard for Sports Illustrated in November 2010. To read the following article in full please click here.
The Courage of Jill Costello
In May 2009, Jill appeared on the outside to be a healthy and talented 21 year old. She was studying Political Economics at University of California, Berkley and coxed in the University rowing team. In May 2009, the team was following a history of success and had just returned from the NCAA championships finishing second behind Stanford. She was a popular, fun loving and caring person, who looked on the brighter side of life and knew how to get a laugh out of her fellow team mates. So she might well have been known as the joker of the squad but she also had determination and initiative, so when she realised the team needed someone to drive the minibus, she got the licence and would pick team mates up at the crack of dawn for practice.
Following the NCAA championships, Jill went to the doctors with persistent nagging pains in her stomach to get checked out and the results were alarming. Doctors had found ominous masses in her lungs, liver, clavicle and breast. Radiologists confirmed it was cancer and the extent to which it had spread was shocking. No one could believe that what appeared to be a healthy, 21 year old non-smoker with no history of the disease had stage IV lung cancer with a prognosis of 9 months to live.
The chemo began within the week and as Jill was young, she was able to withstand treatments that other sufferers of older ages could. Where many would shy away from the revealing the realities of the brutal cancer treatments, Jill began writing an online journal. She is quoted as saying “well it’s day 11 of the treatment and despite the warnings to prepare for extreme nausea, vomiting, low platelet count, depression, poor appetite, constipation, mouth sores and numbness/tingling, I have just been dealing with aches and fatigue. I guess this cancer wasn’t aware that I’m used to doing 6 minute elbow bridges, have sat in the bow of the boat in eight inches of freezing water for an entire two hour practice, have climbed half-dome in under 3½ hours and can hold my own as 60 girls attack a feast of Kappa study snacks during finals.” Her spirit and determination to beat the illness was clear and she took it on as she would have any competitor, head on.
Even though her treatments dominated her time and energy, Jill found the determination to go back to training. She had been given some encouraging news in the December that the masses in her liver and lung had shrunk. She had moved back on to University campus and was taking a few classes. Her coach had saved her a spot on the team and in February 2010 she spoke to him about returning and in early March, having convinced her family and doctors it was the right thing for her she attended her first training session. The team could not have been more supportive and in true sports team fashion they all came wearing t-shirts with “CAL CREW CANCER KILLERS” written across the front. She continued to make it to practice, keeping coaching staff up to date with treatments that might interfere with practice and over time she became a better coxswain, in part due to the maturity her illness required her to have.
However, the news from the doctors became progressively worse. After 14 rounds of chemotherapy, scans in March showed that the masses in her left lung and liver had grown again and a new one had developed in her right lung. She was now hoping for a miracle. She was one of 40 people chosen to go with a charitable group (King’s of Malta) to visit Lourdes in France where the water at the grotto of Massabielle is said to have healing powers. The only problem was that this trip meant she missed the rowing meet between Stanford and Cal, a critical meet to ensure national championship victory. She kept up-do-date with the results and a picture on facebook showed yet another show of solidarity from her team, who were all dressed not in the usual university colours but her favourite turquoise with a silhouette of her holding a trophy aloft and the words Jill written underneath, instead of CAL. She then learned something else, the top coxswain had been demoted to the second boat leaving the top spot open and the end of season championships approached.
Jill was told on 8th May, following a team vote, that she had made the spot. Both Jill and the coach knew that the team was too competitive to make sentimental decisions. It was a dream from Jill who knew it was going to be brutally tough, but by now she was used to that and had been waiting for this moment since junior high. A couple of weeks earlier she had insisted on going straight to practice from chemo that had left her barely able to stand. When she pulled up for practice the coach had said they had another cox and that she didn’t have to do this and urged her to make a smart decision. Her response had been that she was making the smartest decision.
The way Jill saw it, there was nothing more important to her recovery. If she could get in her boat, then she could keep fighting cancer. And if she could beat their arch rivals Stanford at the PAC-10’s, then she could beat cancer.
On May 16th 2010, Jill gingerly joined her teammates in the boat at the PAC-10 championships (an elite college level conference on the US Pacific coast), the varsity 8’s was the final race of the meet, Jill knew it was time. She handed Kristina Lofman seated in stroke a vial containing “miracle water” from her trip to Lourdes and told her to drink it and pass it on. The flagged dropped and the race commenced with Cal shooting across the start line like a rocket. At 1000m it Cal leading by half a length. Before the race, their coach had told Lofman to look Jill in her eyes at 1000m and be as brave as she is, when she did Lofman didn’t expect to see what she saw. Jill saw fear in Lofman’s eyes as she wiped away a trickle of blood. “It was like she wasn’t going to let her body stop her from doing what she wanted to do” Lofman later said. Already close to maxing out, Lofman dug even deeper.
With just 100m to go, two members of the crew did what all fear, and caught a crab sending shock waves through the boat. But with quick reactions from Jill’s steering and a commanding “Finish Stong” the team crossed the line with less than a second in the lead to win the PAC-10 championship for Cal.
Jill continued to do what made her happy. In her online journal she wrote “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.” By the end of the academic year, Jill had graduated with a 4.0 GPA to a thunderous applause, raised over $47,000 for lung cancer through organising a fundraising event called ‘Jog for Jill’ and had been selected to Cox the first team in the rowing final. Simply by making it this far she had defied the odds yet she was still determined to win and be national champions. They just needed to finish in front of Virginia. The race as expected was a thriller. The Yale crew took an early lead with Virginia and Princeton following close behind and Cal in fourth. After the fastest third leg from Cal everyone could see a comeback brewing and as they approached and crossed the line the realisation that they had come fourth behind Virginia sunk in. In any other year the team would have been ecstatic to have come second but this year it was different, they were winning it for Jill and missing out by one place meant they were devastated. But not Jill, she was the least upset girl and didn’t cry or wallow in defeat. The girl that had the most to be upset about set about celebrating her teams’ achievements, showing true spirit and courage.
Less than a month later, on the 24th June, Jill passed away.
During her battle with cancer, Jill wanted to raise the profile of lung cancer. It has a pitifully low survival rate of 15.5% and this survival rates haven’t changed for 40 years. To make matters worse, it has a stigma attached as a self induced disease so charity donations are limited, restricting the research to improve future treatment. Yet one in five people diagnosed with lung cancer have never smoked.
Jill spearheaded the first Jog for Jill on February 7, 2010 on the UC Berkeley Campus. The race drew over 1,000 participants and raised over 45,000 dollars for lung cancer research. This was the largest fundraiser ever for lung cancer at the time. After Jill's death Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation and Jill's Legacy held their annual lung cancer walk/run in honor of Jill. Jog for Jill was held on September 12, 2010 and drew over 5,000 participants and raised over 350,000 dollars.