Running Down a Dream

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Rigging boats at Lake Natoma in Gold River, Calif., captain Mary Jeghers and the Cal women's crew team were warming up for an 8,000-meter practice run in preparation for the 2010 NCAA women's rowing championships.

Jill Costello was a little late to practice. The senior coxswain, who had been diagnosed with Level IV lung cancer in June 2009, was arriving in Gold River after having CT scans read earlier that morning.

"We all knew that Jill had an important doctor's visit that day and that she was going to come up late," says Jeghers. "Before Jill got there, (coach Dave O'Neill) told us it wasn't good news, and that we should make it great for her."

Costello arrived at the lake and immediately began preparing for practice.

"I said, 'Jill, are you OK? Will you be able to handle this?'" O'Neill says. "And she told me 'Yep, no problem.'"

After over 20 rounds of chemotherapy and, according to O'Neill, four different types of drug treatments, Costello was told that it was not time to think about curing the cancer, but "how to make her comfortable."

"A few hours earlier she was told that she only had a few weeks to live," says O'Neill. "And you never would have known by her actions that she had been told. That's when I knew that I was witnessing something absolutely amazing."

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, lung cancer kills more than breast cancer, colon cancer and prostate cancer combined. It kills more than any other cancer.

Just ask Bonnie J. Addario.

After two incorrect diagnoses, Addario learned she had lung cancer in 2004. While researching the disease, she also found that despite being the deadliest cancer, lung cancer lacked adequate funding.

"When I was going through chemotherapy and radiation, I found that lung cancer was the least funded cancers of all cancers, yet it is responsible for almost 35-percent of all cancer deaths," says Addario.

With help from Dr. David Jablons of UCSF, Addario established the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer foundation.

"(Lung cancer) kills 1.6 million people worldwide every year. That's a lot of deaths," says Addario. "I started the foundation to change that."

Addario realized that even though a high percentage of lung cancer patients do not smoke, it was stigmatized in society as a "smoker's disease."

"For every $14 that goes to breast cancer, only one dollar goes to lung cancer," says Addario.

Lung cancer can be triggered by a series of different exposures: Radon, asbestos and genetic variants are some of the ways lung cancer attacks the immune system. When Costello was diagnosed, there was no apparent cause for the cancer.

According to Addario, Costello's condition has shown up frequently in young people and that researchers are "stymied" by its spread. Both Addario and Costello worked feverishly to send Costello's tissue to lung cancer specialists everywhere, but none found a basis for the cancer's spread.

In its five years of existence, the Bonnie J. Addario Foundation has been unrelenting in its attempts to raise lung cancer awareness. Addario was the fifth person in her family to be diagnosed with the disease and she is the only survivor. Sheila von Driska, the executive director of the foundation, told the Daily Californian in February that the foundation had raised about $4 million since its inception four years ago.

Costello connected with the Addario foundation and was anxious to get the word out about the disease. Her public battle with the sickness triggered an unforeseen upturn in fundraising and, more importantly, awareness about the disease that would later take her life.

Even though the diagnosis was terminal, the one missing teammate joined the crew team for Wednesday afternoon practice at Lake Natoma. After all, this was the NCAA rowing championships, an event in which Cal placed second in 2009, and Costello was at the stern of one of the team's standout boats.

During the 2010 season, Costello coxed the Varsity 8+ boat for the first time despite her condition. With victories over rival Stanford in the Big Row and in the Pac-10 championships, the 8+ boat was one of Cal's best.

As a veteran coxswain, Costello developed a feel for the lake, the boat, and more importantly, her teammates' energy level.

"When Jill said that the team needed to push harder and be tougher in the second half of the race, everybody on the boat knew that it was coming from a person that was really quite tough," says O'Neill

Coxswains must be vocal because they are the only figures who see the entire course. They must coach and they must also motivate. They command the boat.

"The irony of that weekend's race was that the toughest, strongest willed person who was racing that weekend at NCAAs was physically the weakest," says O'Neill.

Costello's competitive drive and courage extended beyond the water.Through her bouts with chemotherapy, radiation therapy and all types of medication, Costello did not miss a meet. Statistically, patients diagnosed with Level IV lung cancer are given three or four weeks to live, but just as Costello never missed a meet during treatment, neither did she stop working to raise awareness of the disease.

After a few months' work with Addario and other outreach work, Costello spearheaded the first "Jog for Jill," which was run on Feb. 7. The event drew hundreds and raised significant donations for the Addario Lung Cancer Foundation.

Right before her death in June, Costello wrote in her journal that the group needed to really get the word out about lung cancer. She suggested another run, but this time in Golden Gate Park. True to her wishes, the second "Jog for Jill" will take place there this Sunday.

"On her deathbed, Jill was strategizing how to make the jog in September a greater success," said O'Neill. "She set some pretty lofty goals."

What were lofty goals became attainable with Costello's devotion and the support of her team, her sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma and the community. All in the face of death at age 22, Jill Costello became one of the most prominent educators about lung cancer in the United States.

"Our foundation had a jog last year, and I think we had about 500 people there," said Addario. "We are expecting 3,000 for Jog for Jill."

For Addario, the message she has tirelessly tried to communicate for five years is now burgeoning nationwide. Her organization is already planning a run in Boston, and there is already a team in Costello's name. The Addario foundation went as far as to hire Costello as the Director of Awareness just a few months before her death.

According to the program invitation, the Sept. 12 race's initial fundraising goal was $125,000. As of midnight Wednesday morning, the run had already raised $222,258.

"Jill has changed the face of lung cancer forever, for absolutely ever," said Addario. "This young girl will do more for lung cancer than anyone previously, all single-handedly."

The 2010 NCAA rowing championships, where Cal finished second overall, was Jill's last event. Along with a fine athletic career, Costello was accomplished in the classroom. Earlier that May, she had graduated with a degree in Political Economy, was named to the Pac-10 All-Academic Second Team and was awarded Pac-10 Athlete of the Year.

Most of the team knew she had received news about her condition before that Wednesday practice, but nothing conclusive had been announced. As in any other practice, she took the stern and joined the boat she had led all season.

"It was one practice where we were all at ease. It was so comforting to have her there," said Jeghers. "The second she got into practice, she was raring to go."

In the form of any good veteran coxswain, Costello's presence on the water established control and ease. The same could be said about her charity work.

Up until her death on June 24, the girl that is now simply known as "Jill" worked tirelessly to inform the public about lung cancer. Jill's courage, lessons and presence remain.

It must have been the coxswain in her to lead by example.

Tags: CAL WOMEN'S CREW, JILL COSTELLO, JOG FOR JILL


Gabriel Baumgaertner is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]



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