Pick a good medical team; one that works well with each other, and one that’s flexible to your requests. If you have chemo, protect your brain. If you have chemo, protect your balance.Be your best advocate. Live Cancer large. Don’t let Cancer diminish you.
Cancer is a horrible and terrifying disease. Yet millions of people have beaten the odds and beat cancer. Authority Magazine started a new series called “I Survived Cancer and Here Is How I Did It”. In this interview series, we are talking to cancer survivors to share their stories, in order to offer hope and provide strength to people who are being impacted by cancer today. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jill Kleiss.
Jill Kleiss is the youngest child of Capt. Jack “Dusty” Kleiss, a Battle of Midway hero. She is a nationally published freelance writer, substitute elementary school teacher, and three-time survivor of Her-2 positive breast cancer. Jill lives in Pacific Grove, CA.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! We really appreciate the courage it takes to publicly share your story. Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your childhood backstory?
I was the youngest of five children. My early years were spent back East where dad was stationed in the Navy. When he retired, he moved the family to Berkeley Springs, WV, where he became a high school teacher. We lived by Sleepy Creek, and it was nine miles from town. I missed my old friends. To alleviate loneliness, I started writing in sixth grade. Entering high school, I participated in plays, oratory contests, and, to guarantee a place to sit/stand at the ball games, I became a cheerleader. Our home was filled with my mother’s piano playing and the deep-bellied laughter of my father. At dinner time, I always heard stories of WWII and dad’s memories of the people he admired, respected, and lost in the war. At 19, after two years of college, I moved to California to finish school. After graduation, I eked out a living as a freelance writer. Changing career paths, I worked for 17 years in medical sales. Then cancer found me. In the process of fighting my own private war with this disease, I found, and continue to find joy juxtaposed with pain. Cancer, and the required treatment, brings a bag of monsters to your doorstep. But when this door is opened, it can also lead to self-discovery. In my new normal, I find joy by teaching kids, writing, and helping others through their cancer journey.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When I was a teen, I saw “The Man From La Mancha” in DC. In that song, Don Quixote sings:
To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe…
My dad was a WWII hero in The Battle of Midway. His mother, Lulu, died of cancer at 46. Lulu was a writer, and a woman of great integrity. She always told her son to lead a life of service. I believe I inherited my dad’s quiet strength. The song reminds me of the example he set. Courage comes in many forms. Giving up life to cancer was never an option for me; just like it was a choice/no choice for Dusty to go up in his plane on June 4–6, 1942, in The Battle of Midway.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about surviving cancer. Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you found out that you had cancer?
Which time: 1, 2, or 3? My oncologist thinks the first time is the worst; my surgeon believes the subsequent diagnoses are. Me? I think all times are bad, but maybe the first diagnosis is the worst. In my case, in 2015 when I was 61, I had completed my gynecological check-up on time, but I delayed my mammogram until six months later. Why worry? The doctor had given me an all clear — no lumps. But six months later, there was a problem. Not a good idea to delay mammograms. My intuition kept telling me to get it done. I went in one day and I got called back the next for a re-check and, subsequently, my diagnosis of Cancer #1, Grade 2, Her-2+ breast cancer. My Cancer #2 happened five years later in September 2020. Intuitively, I knew I had cancer the day I walked into the clinic. PTSD struck hard when I got my second diagnosis. I wrote, “Mirror, Mirror,” published in our local paper, Cedar Street Times. My story is a retrospective look at cancer and a disease that moved from its position in the rear-view mirror to my adjacent passenger seat. Cancer #3 diagnosis came nine months after diagnosis #2 in May 2021. Originally, I was told I was “all clear” but the doctor noted I had a “COVID node” — a swollen lymph node in the armpit area that sometimes results after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. But it was my insisting on a biopsy that discovered that the “COVID node” was actually breast cancer.
What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?
My reaction to the first diagnosis in 2015 was shock. I got the news on my mammogram recheck with the doctor. She laser pointed an image of my breast on her computer screen and showed me the ‘spot’. I asked her straight out, “On a scale of one to ten, how bad is it?” She said, “I think you have cancer.” I had no idea what to expect regarding treatment. Would I die? I knew other people who had breast cancer, they lived through it, but it was just one of those “that could never happen to me,” experiences. It was, until it wasn’t. I started researching, asking questions of everyone. I faced the chemo chair two weeks later for the first of my 12 sessions. The thought of having chemo was my worst nightmare. I’d heard rumors about chemo brain. Of all the side effects, that one scared me the most. I didn’t want to have permanent brain fog. My second worst nightmare? Losing my hair, which I did after week four of chemo. I looked awful in wigs (I called mine ‘Road Kill’). I flew to see my dad, and, in the airport, I met a beautiful bald woman wearing a pink ribbon medal. Seeing her wear bald beautifully gave me the courage to do the same. I trashed the wig and wrote the story “The Day I Ditched My ‘Road Kill,” in Heal Magazine.
How did you react in the short term?
I immediately joined a breast cancer support group when I was diagnosed with cancer the first time. In my first meeting with the nurse leader of the group, I told her, “I will be a mess in the beginning. You will have to scrape me off the floor. But once I get the handle on this, I will soar.” I cried a lot in those first weeks/months. I also started to develop increased empathy for others facing the same hurdle. I also started developing more self-compassion by learning how to be gentle with myself.
After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use? What did you do to cope physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?
Along with joining the cancer support group (which unfortunately disbanded prior to Cancers #2 and #3), I made little devices to help me get through the experience. For example, I created a tear-off sheet to count down my chemo sessions. I started with the summer sun and ended with a Christmas tree, with 12 tear-off slips marking each chemo. And I started writing from the day I hit the chemo chair. The writing was therapy, and it was also brain exercise. I skimped on the physical exercise part. I talk about that in my suggestions.
Is there a particular person you are grateful towards who helped you learn to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?
The first go round with cancer I had incredible support, especially from my friend and editor, Bob Raymond. He drove me to every appointment, every chemo session, and every surgery. And he edited all of my cancer and other stories. He was there for me. We have different perspectives regarding how to view cancer, but he tolerates mine. He’d never want you to know that after my first lumpectomy, I hung a silk shirt over my bathroom mirror so I couldn’t see my new, disfigured breast. After a few weeks, the swelling went down and the ‘look’ wasn’t as bad as I had imagined. The dark times were made easier by having someone there as company. To do cancer alone is incredibly hard. No one understands cancer like someone who has/had cancer. That included me prior to my diagnosis. Bob was there for me offering compassion, company, and cuddling which made cancer a little easier to bear.
In my own cancer struggle, I sometimes used the idea of embodiment to help me cope. Let’s take a minute to look at cancer from an embodiment perspective. If your cancer had a message for you, what do you think it would want or say?
I’m not sure what cancer is trying to say… it’s still talking. I hope I stick around long enough to get all the lessons. But what I have learned are the gifts of cancer, which I write about in the same-named story printed in Heal Magazine. “In this place of being old and new again, we are blessed with the gifts of cancer — a kind and empathetic presence, ours for a lifetime.”
What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? How has cancer shaped your worldview? What has it taught you that you might never have considered before? Can you please explain with a story or example?
Cancer has deepened my life. I liken it to having a new best friend/worst enemy. Best friend because it has deepened my empathy for others going through life traumas of any kind, as well as taught me to stand up for myself, and the side benefit of deepening my writing. Cancer is my worst enemy because each reoccurrence reignites my fear of chemo, or even death. With every surgery, like the one I faced just recently on August 31 for reconstruction/lumpectomy, I feel like I’m standing at the open door of a plane with a parachute on my back. I take the jump, but is this the time the parachute doesn’t open?”
How have you used your experience to bring goodness to the world?
I write. I tell the truth about my life and my experience with cancer: the good, bad, scary, and funny times and share these experiences with others. Cancer has given me the opportunity to provide my own life of service. Through my stories and experiences, I hope to share what I learn with others: ways to avoid chemo brain, or balance issues. Also, I stress the importance of staying positive. I believe in living cancer large. Don’t let it diminish you. Let the feelings come, and then pass through you. Scream, cry, laugh, and accept the compliments of “You look great!” Yes, I’m fighting the unbeatable foe. And, for every success, I put cancer in the rear-view mirror once again. I encourage others to do the same.
What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?
I have two favorites: 1. People with cancer did something in their present life or their past life that caused the cancer. Yes. I’ve heard this one, and I think I lost my non-violent communication skills when I did. What did the people of the Holocaust do to deserve their fate? Cancer is not punitive. It’s just bad luck. Who and what it makes you become is a different matter. As a result of cancer, I can answer an inappropriate remark in that moment, not three weeks later. I say something as simple as, “That doesn’t help,” or “That’s not a kind thing to say.” 2. Cancer patients live five years after being diagnosed. I’ve heard this in various forms. “Is it true that …” and the bold question of “How long are you going to live?” after my recent third diagnosis. Really?? I think that people who have the second misconception are either going by old textbook knowledge, or they had a loved one that died of cancer years ago. The latter group predicates each cancer diagnosis based on their personal experience. The man who asked “How long are you going to live” had a sister who died within six months of being diagnosed with breast cancer. That was 20 years ago. Research and treatment have advanced since then. The chemo drug I took for Cancer #1 was only approved two years earlier. The treatment for Cancer #3, Kadcyla, was released a mere five years before I received it. My surgeon says we are working with a whole new line of life-saving drugs.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give to others who have recently been diagnosed with cancer? What are your “5 Things You Need To Beat Cancer? Please share a story or example for each.
- Pick a good medical team; one that works well with each other, and one that’s flexible to your requests.
- If you have chemo, protect your brain.
- If you have chemo, protect your balance.
- Be your best advocate.
- Live Cancer large. Don’t let Cancer diminish you.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?
I’d like to return to the earlier guideline of age 40 for mammograms. High risk women can get their mammograms earlier than 50, but often that incidence of risk i.e. a genetic mutation, is not discovered until after an occurrence of breast cancer. I also think a biopsy should be added to screening measures if someone has an enlarged lymph node after receiving an mRNA covid vaccination. That shot, and subsequent biopsy, saved my life and three other lives in my community. We all had clear mammograms and I had a clear ultrasound, but our biopsies revealed we had breast cancer.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂
Stephen King. I love the line in Shawshank Redemption. “You get busy livin’ or get busy dyin.”
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I’m on LinkedIn, and I have a YouTube channel: Jill Kleiss Chemo Dancer. My articles are in Cure and Heal Magazines, and I have a podcast on Aliveandkickn.org. I also wrote the introduction to my dad’s book, Never Call Me A Hero. I can also be messaged on Facebook.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!