Editor's note: This is one in a continuing series of stories chronicling Jill Brzezinski-Conley's attempt to live her life on her terms in the face of terminal breast cancer. The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal has been following Conley's journey since last October; links to earlier stories can be found below.
LOUISVILLE - On the nights she's with the children, they cuddle in one big bed - Jill Brzezinski-Conley within the embrace of two young nieces while another sleeps horizontally near her head and a nephew curls at her feet.
Those warm, quiet moments are the closest she will ever get to a lifelong dream that cancer has stolen: being a mom.
It's a dream that devastates five years after breast cancer invaded her body, spread to her bones and now kills her slowly. She sees it in the face of her 9-year-old niece Skye Conley, who everyone says resembles her like a daughter.
It's why - despite hungering for news about far-flung friends - she rarely looks at Facebook. That way she doesn't have to see all the posts and photos of pregnancies and babies and first steps.
"The hardest part of the cancer is the fact she'll never be able to have kids, and she talks about it a lot," said her mother, Rosemary Duchon of Las Vegas. "She's so nurturing. She's patient. She has so much kindness. She has the capacity to be such a great mom."
Conley finds other ways to nurture, caring for relatives as often as possible, even though keeping up with youngsters can be exhausting. "I love my nieces and nephews like my own children," she said. "But it's hard when you have to give them back."
She extends her nurturing beyond her family, too, as a mentor and surrogate mom to many, most recently Canadian college student Alyssa O'Brien.
O'Brien, 24, who has cerebral palsy and gets around with a walker, reached out to Conley when she decided to walk this month in the first 5K fundraiser for Jill's Wish, a charity providing financial help to cancer patients.
"She's such a great example," said O'Brien, who stayed with Conley while in Louisville. "She will be a big chunk of my heart for every day now."
But as any parent or mentor will tell you, nurturing is bittersweet. At some point, it means letting go.
The morning of the 5K, Conley, 37, walked beside O'Brien and nieces Skye and Ruthie as they began the race. She placed a supportive hand on O'Brien's back as the wheels of her walker grated on the pavement with every step.
Less than a quarter-mile into the route, however, Conley had to turn back. She gets tired and winded just walking around the block these days.
Conley said she knew, in a larger sense, that she'd walk beside them for as long as she could, but they'd have to cross the finish line without her.
A dream denied
When Conley stood at the altar in 2008 with her husband, Bart, their future seemed to stretch out before them, and both envisioned it filled with children. Bart, once a football standout at Purdue University, confided to his mom that he couldn't wait to coach a son in sports.
But six months after the wedding, a day before her 32nd birthday, doctors diagnosed Conley with Stage 3 breast cancer. She had a double mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation and breast-implant surgery, but had to have the left implant removed when radiation burned a hole in it.
And all this only bought her a short reprieve. Incurable cancer resurfaced in her sternum two years ago and has since spread to the lining of a lung.
Conley's treatment left her unable to bear children. She basically went into early menopause when she took a hormone-blocking shot called Lupron, which turns off ovarian function. To live, she had to give up her dream.
She thought it wasn't fair to take away her husband's dream, too. She told him: "You need to move on. You deserve to be a dad, to coach your kid in football and have a family. I can't give you that."
But he assured her he would never leave; they would build a different dream. Duchon said she helped them briefly research adoption, but they soon came to believe it would be difficult to qualify because of her daughter's cancer.
The Conleys made a decision: Instead of pouring their hearts into children, they'd pour them into each other, their extended family and friends, and Jill Conley's new-found mission: To promote early cancer detection and spread a message that true beauty is defined by confidence and kindness and love, and can never be erased by illness.
"I've always dreamed of having kids, but we've got our hand that we've been dealt, and we know what our hand is," said Bart Conley, who after a layoff recently began working as a recruiter at a temp agency and in sales for a home buyer's guide. "We've got to deal with that, and there's no sense dwelling on what can't happen."
Still, the pain can rush back when life raises the subject. Duchon recalled when a couple of Conley's close friends recently gave birth to twins, reminding her daughter of all the times people used to say she'd probably have twins one day because she has a twin brother.
"Just seeing people with babies is tough. When she gets depressed, the thing that makes her cry is not being able to have kids," Duchon said. "Mother's Day is a bittersweet day for me. I think of her."
Love and lessons
So Conley lives another version of her dream, as everyone's favorite aunt.
At her birthday dinner this month, Skye pulled a restaurant chair as close to Conley as possible. She smoothed Conley's hair over and over and removed a silk scarf from her aunt's neck to wrap around her own. Then she leaned her head on Conley's shoulder and kept it there for much of the evening.
"I love her," Skye said. "I'm scared because â?¦ she might die. I hope she lives as long as I live."
Skye's brother Bradley, 13, is old enough to know she won't. "Every time you celebrate," he said, "you're just so happy that she's still alive."
The good days still outnumber the bad ones for Conley, but not by as many as before. She often pushes herself until she's exhausted, then winds up sick in bed. One of the latest indignities of cancer was jaw pain that she likened to an abscess in every tooth, which turned out to be a side effect of bone medication she had to replace.
Still, Conley decided to care for Skye, Ruthie and Bradley for more than two weeks recently while Bart's mother, Betty Conley, who has custody of the children, recovered from knee surgery.
"She said she'd take them for six weeks if she could," Betty Conley said. "They love being there. She's just real special to them."
She said the kids look forward to long talks with their aunt and visits to the pool at her St. Matthews apartment complex. During their extended stay, they also played board and card games, watched movies and played with the Conleys' cat and two dogs. Bradley played Minecraft on his computer and helped Conley cook meals from a recipe book, while his sisters enjoyed girl talk and makeovers.
Lying in bed one night, Skye asked Conley for a "pinkie swear that we'll be best friends forever."
Most days were busy and happy; the kids even helped with housework because they knew Conley tired easily. But one time, Bradley fought with her about playing video games, angrily announcing he didn't want to stay at her house. She told him, through tears, that when she's gone, "you're going to regret moments like this." Bradley cried, too, and apologized.
"She's taught me a lot about being good," he said. "I love her â?¦ to infinity."
Conley also tries to impart other lessons to Bradley, Skye, Ruthie and her brother's daughter, 4-year-old Avery.
She rails against bullying and insults, and does whatever she can to build the children up. She tells Bradley never to feel bad about the stares and comments he sometimes gets because he's biracial.
"They're staring at you because you're so beautiful," she tells him. "They're all looking at me, too, because I have one boob."
For her nieces, she keeps a journal with lessons such as: "You will always be beautiful if you treat everyone you meet with Love and Respect!"
The children give back to her in the way only children can. They've sold their own toys to raise money to fight cancer, and the girls once held a "water stand" selling cups of water. To Conley, their fistfuls of small bills and change were as precious as thousands of dollars.
Going on ahead
O'Brien said she looks up to Conley as a mentor for the same reasons the children do - she gives love and lessons without even trying.
"She would be the best mom," O'Brien said.
O'Brien first learned about Conley watching a viral video on her cancer journey, then found out about the 5K online. She contacted Conley a few months ago, and they've been talking, e-mailing and growing closer ever since.
In Conley, O'Brien said, she sees the type of woman she wants to be. She said she's drawn to her "big heart and the light she has to her."
"When I look at her, I think: How could I possibly spend a day being sad?"
Actually, O'Brien has many reasons. Besides cerebral palsy, she suffers from an undiagnosed illness causing constant nausea. As a child, she was the victim of relentless bullying that forced her to change schools.
She said one of the worst moments in her life was when another student confronted her in a school cafeteria, using an obscenity, calling her "handicapped" and saying "no one will ever love you."
"It was really hard to feel good about myself," said O'Brien, who finally made friends in the second school she attended.
Such experiences helped her relate deeply to Conley's message of finding inner beauty despite illness. Now, she's inspired by Conley's efforts to help others through her charity and leave a concrete legacy that will go on when she is gone.
Before the 5K earlier this month, O'Brien raised about $2,000 for the cause.
"My dream in life is to be a humanitarian. What I want to be doing is helping other people," O'Brien said. "This has taught me the importance of giving back. She has taught me that."
O'Brien said Conley has also taught her to persist despite pain. She practiced for the race for several weeks in her Montreal neighborhood, never making it past about 3.5 kilometers. But on race day she pushed on, using her wheelchair for only a tiny portion of the Iroquois Park route, in the steepest spots.
When O'Brien crossed the finish line after two hours and 24 minutes, Jill Conley joined the crowd in applause and cheers. She bent down to hug O'Brien with tears in her eyes.
"She's the most inspirational woman I've ever met," Conley said, echoing O'Brien's remarks about her.
O'Brien, and the many people Conley has nurtured, say they will grow into better people because of what she has taught them and how she has guided them.
But, as is often the case with teachers, guides and parents, the love and lessons are sure to outlive Conley - a painful reality for everyone, especially the children.
"It's been hard. ... She's like my mom," Bradley said. "I want her to live forever."
Laura Ungar also writes for The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal
Read the original story: Breast cancer doesn't stop her from nurturing others