Surviving to help


She beat the illness twice; now Jill Tonoli is raising money to fight the scourge of breast cancer.

LEWISTON – The first diagnosis felt like a death sentence.

“I don’t know if you can, in words, describe the feeling,” Jill Tonoli said, recalling the moment a doctor said the lump in her breast was cancerous. “It was mind-numbing, body-numbing.”

The second time, 10 years later, was a little easier.

Yet, her memories – of the surgeries, the chemotherapy and so much fighting – weighed on her. “I wondered, Do I have strength for all of this again?'”

She did.

Tonoli, now 55, celebrated her fifth year without cancer this March. It was a low-key observance, though.

“I’ve learned that the five-year mark is a little rough,” she said of the traditional “cured” milestone.

Besides, there’s always more women who need help, she said.

Tonoli, an operating room nurse at Central Maine Medical Center, for years has mentored women with breast cancer.

But this year, she is stepping up her help.

On Sunday, April 9, she will be a model at the annual spring fashion show to benefit the Sam and Jennie Bennett Breast Care Center at Central Maine Medical Center. The money raised will help women pay for mammograms and treatments.

And next month, she will lead a team of several women on a two-day, 39.4-mile benefit trek through Boston, part of the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer.

The local women call themselves “Jill’s Journey.”

“I want things to get better for all women, for my daughter and my sisters,” said Tonoli. “I feel like I have to help.”

Understanding the battle

She has no choice.

“Some women can compartmentalize their lives and put their cancer over here in a box,” Tonoli said.

As a nurse, she couldn’t.

She began mentoring women with breast cancer just weeks after her first diagnosis. She was learning about her own cancer, a tough form known as “Stage III B,” when doctors began referring women to her.

Tonoli understood what they were going through. She was worried about her 13-year-old daughter while she was called across Maine and the country for information in her battle.

She underwent surgery, enduring a mastectomy, reconstruction surgery and six months of chemotherapy.

“The chemo was so horrible the first time,” Tonoli said. The drugs were injected into her body through her chest.

She believes she managed because she had investigated her cancer before settling on a strategy.

“I think it empowered me to know that I had that control,” she said.

It’s a regular message to the women she meets.

“Get all of your information before your treatment starts,” she tells them. “Talk to the oncologist, the radiation therapist and the plastic surgeon. Then, make decisions.”

The second time

It’s getting a little easier.

When Tonoli was diagnosed a second time, the Bennett Breast Care Center had been open for three years.

A routine mammogram there discovered a lump, and the diagnosis was fast-tracked. She consulted with a doctor within minutes. An ultrasound was completed the same day.

Again, she had surgery. But the chemo was easier.

It never again felt like a death sentence.

“I knew I had gotten through it the first time,” she said. “I questioned my strength, but my daughter was older.”

As she recovered again, it helped to be part of the fundraisers. She took part in 5-kilometer walks in South Florida, where she spent her winters for several years.

Last year, she joined the Boston Avon walk for the first time. An estimated 1,700 walkers raised about $4.5 million.

This year, her team own is bigger, including her sisters Jeri Wade and Judy Bird, sister-in-law Lynda Wade and friends Debbie Costello, Debbie Rancourt and Tammy Gilbert. Together, they hope to raise $15,000.

“We’ve been training since January,” she said. “We’ll be ready.”