June 24, 2010
By Allison Yee
Coxswain on the women's crew team, rising senior majoring in political economies of industrial societies, and vice president of membership for the Panhellenic Council. Jill Costello's life was in fast-forward last year with a schedule packed full of activities when a new challenge emerged.
That new challenge: lung cancer.
After helping the Golden Bears to a second-place finish at the 2009 NCAA Women's Rowing Championships in Cherry Hill, N.J., Costello returned home to Berkeley wondering why a stomachache had not gone away after two weeks. A blood test revealed an exceptionally high white blood cell count, and her doctor urged her to go to the emergency room immediately. The San Francisco native headed across the Bay Bridge to the California Pacific Medical Center where doctors performed a series of ultrasounds, CT scans and x-rays.
On June 9, four days after being admitted to the hospital, doctors diagnosed Costello with stage IV lung cancer, which had spread to her liver, breast and bones. Due to the aggressive state of the cancer, she began chemotherapy the following day. Costello has completed 13 rounds of chemotherapy and recently started radiation.
The fight against cancer has helped Costello recognize her inner strength. "I'm definitely a lot tougher than I thought I was," she said. "I used to be afraid of needles and getting into machines. Now, I've learned to stay calm and meditate through everything."
In addition to learning more about herself throughout this journey, Costello realized the size and dedication of her support network from the moment she received her diagnosis.
"I am so lucky to have all these people around me who are willing to do anything and everything they can to help," said Costello. "When I was in the hospital, the hallways were crowded, and staff tried to have us tell all the guests to leave. Everyone just wanted to be there and be supportive."
Throughout the summer, family and friends, including Cal teammates and coaches, visited Costello to show their love and encouragement. Assistant head coach Sara Nevin brought the Pac-10 championship trophy from Costello's varsity 4+ race as a reminder that she was a champion. Head coach Dave O'Neill, who was training with the U.S. National team in Princeton, N.J., e-mailed Costello short videos.
In August, Kappa Kappa Gamma sister Caitlin Wells organized a team of over 100 members to participate in a charity walk in Golden Gate Park benefitting the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation. "Team Jill" raised $8,354 for lung cancer research and was honored as the top fundraising team. The walk would only be the beginning of Costello and Team Jill's work with the foundation.
Costello began working closely with the Addario Foundation after the charity walk to educate people about lung cancer. "It's a big focus of the foundation to change the face of lung cancer," she said. "People don't know that it's not just a smoker's disease. Sixty percent of people diagnosed now are non-smokers or quit decades ago."
The stigma associated with lung cancer is the reason it receives little public attention and funding, according to Costello.
The success of the charity walk in August inspired an event in Costello's honor that brought the Cal community together. Jog for Jill, held this past Feb. 7, drew nearly 1,000 participants and raised more than $45,000.
"I couldn't believe how much people gave," Costello said. "It brought a lot of awareness to cancer."
Sorority sister Darby Anderson worked with the foundation to create the personalized run. Jog for Jill was one of 13 runs on the foundation's 2010 schedule, which includes two in China at the end of the year.
Numerous Cal sports teams, sororities and fraternities participated in the 5K run through campus. Members of both the Stanford women's crew and Santa Clara Kappa Kappa Gamma chapter also traveled to Berkeley in support of Costello.
One of Costello's professors pledged $40 for each point that the Cal men's basketball team scored during its home game against Washington. After high-scoring contest that ended with 93 points for the Golden Bears, her professor wrote a check for $3,720. Cal women's crew members, running as the "Cal Crew Cancer Killers," continued to show Costello how much she has inspired them during her battle with cancer.
"Without a doubt, the strength and attitude that Jill has shown has had a really big impact on our team," said head coach O'Neill. "Seeing how she dealt with the news and, more importantly, the way she's battled all these months has been a tremendous source of inspiration for everyone. We are all working hard to make this a happy ending."
As she continues to fight cancer, Costello is committed to "living as normally as possible." Being a multi-tasker is ingrained in a coxswain's job description as well as in Costello's character. She is on track to graduate in May and continues to be involved in her sorority.
Costello was recently involved with Invisible Children and led a book drive that collected more than 20,000 books for children in Uganda. She is also looking forward to racing in her final season with Cal crew.
After graduation, Costello plans to continue working with the Bonnie J. Addario Foundation, organizing events and coordinating media campaigns.
"It's definitely something I am committed to and something my heart is in," she said. An avid traveler, Costello hopes to spread cancer awareness on behalf of the foundation.
In collaboration with the Addario Lung Cancer Medical Institute, the foundation is working with seven universities in the United States and another in Barcelona to develop a tissue depository. This would allow researchers to study samples in order to develop personalized treatments based on different genetic mutations and tumors.
In addition to working with the foundation, Costello is also interested in attending business or law school in the future.
Among Costello's goals for this year: full enjoyment of her last semester in Berkeley, winning an NCAA championship and, most importantly, being put in remission.
Lung cancer cannot hold Costello back. It only inspires her. "Cancer is here for a brief stay, but life goes on," she said. "What I've learned is that roadblocks don't mean you've hit the end of the road. It is that you need to find a new way around."
Donations to the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation may be sent to 601 4th Street, Suite 215, San Francisco, CA 94107.