One of the photos of Jill Conley (Source: Sue Bryce, Photographer)
LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) – People from all over the world have been inspired by a Louisville woman's message of self-love and acceptance. You may have seen Jill Conley before. Her story made it as far as the Today Show. Now she's sharing it where she lives - in Louisville.
It's a story about love, strength and courage but mostly about being beautiful using your own definition
"Just to be confident and rock what you got," she said.
Just looking at her, you might think she's an unlikely person to share that lesson. She's beautiful and the kind of person people just respond to naturally, but Jill knows about losing parts of yourself you thought you couldn't live without.
"When he said, ‘I'm 99.9 sure you have breast cancer' I was in total shock," Jill said.
She was just a day shy of her 32nd birthday and only eight months married to Bart. Jill fought: a double mastectomy, 16 rounds of chemo and then remission, cancer free for a year and a half until last January.
A friend left and as he gave her a hug, she says she fell to the ground in pain. After several days of little improvement, she went to the emergency room.
"I knew something was wrong when she demanded a pet scan the next day," she said.
A devastating diagnosis: breast cancer had spread to her bones.
"So many people get it confused," she said. "They think I have bone cancer but I don't. I have breast cancer that has metastasized to my bone and it's two different ballgames. I wish I had bone cancer because the survival rate is like 75-percent and mine is incurable."
But Jill has a strength that shines through even in darkness.
"I feel like if it was negative, I would just be waiting around to die," Jill said.
"She's been pretty awesome through the whole thing and pretty strong," her husband, Bart Conley said. "Everybody responds to her and I said, 'this is, it is God's plan for you to be the leader and to be the one that can take it.'"
Jill was thinking the same thing. She wanted to show the world what a mastectomy looked like. During a girls' trip visit to her friend Nikki, Jill asked her to take some photographs that they could send to magazines for Breast Cancer Awareness month. Nikki shared them with photographer Sue Bryce, who was leading a CreativeLIVE class in photography Nikki was taking.
Bryce saw something immediately.
"When I met her, I just fell in love with her," Bryce said. "She is just the most amazing girl and so I said, 'How about we go to Paris and do a photo shoot."
For five days, in a dream like shoot, they told Jill's story, showing her body as it is.
"Then (Sue) asked, 'Hey are you ok showing your breast nude?' and I was like, 'How can I tell a story to make women feel confident if I'm not going to show what mine looks like?'"
The photos and the documentary went viral. It appeared in the Huffington Post, People Online and they went to New York to tell their story on the Today Show.
"(Sue was) like, 'You know the world's going to see this,'" Jill said. "And I said, 'That's exactly what I want. I want the world to see it.'"
Just as quickly, people started responding, sending messages.
"I see them from Kenya, Africa, India, brazil, Poland, Sweden, Germany," Jill said.
They're letters from all over thanking Jill for her strength in loving her body, letters not just from people touched by cancer. One came from a woman bullied her whole life because of her weight.
Jill said that the woman wrote, "after I saw your documentary and I saw you on the Today Show, I literally looked in the mirror and I said out loud, 'I am beautiful,' and she said thank you so much for giving me my life back today."
Everyone who sees or meets Jill learns a little something from her.
"If she taught me anything she taught me that I really want to change the conversation that we have around our bodies," said Bryce. "She really just wakes you up because here she is this beautiful girl and her body has just been through hell and I can't even fathom how she survived that ... You get older and your boobs sag and that's life, but when you look at someone like Jill, you just can't ever complain about it ... Gratitude for your body and for your health and for everything that you have and just listen to Jill's story and then be really kind to yourself."
Jill is learning that by helping everyone else, she is also helping herself.
"It puts that extra pep in my step the days I don't feel good because there's many of those days," she said. "So it's like I'm helping them, the people out there and they're helping me so thanks guys."
Jill has some exciting things on the horizon but says can't talk about them yet.
You can view the some of the pictures from Sue Bryce's shoot by clicking here. To watch the documentary Bryce's friend, filmmaker Hailey Bartholomew, did click here.
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