Documentary Shows Beauty in the Face of Cancer
You would never guess that the woman in a photo who is smiling and swishing a pink tulle gown in front of the Eiffel Tower underwent 16 rounds of chemotherapy and five surgeries when she was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago. You would also never guess that after a yearlong remission, she was diagnosed with incurable bone cancer.
Jill Brzezinski-Conley is beautiful even with a gap in her dress where her right breast used to be, and she wants other women to feel that way too.
"If I could change one woman's life, I would die the happiest woman," she says during the opening of the 15-minute documentary about her, "The Light That Shines."
The film already has more than 358,000 views, and it's only been up for two weeks on Vimeo.com.
"A woman who's diagnosed or already has it, I'm sure she's scared and she feels alone," Brzezinski-Conley told ABCNews.com, addressing why she decided to share her story with the world. "I didn't want people to feel alone anymore."
In the documentary Brzezinski-Conley takes a trip to Paris to pose in couture gowns for photographer Sue Bryce, while first-time documentary maker Hailey Bartholomew films the experience. The film also includes reenactments of pivotal moments in Brzezinski-Conley's story as she tells it - from crying in the car after the startling breast cancer diagnosis after just a few months of marriage to going out on a dinner date with her husband and ditching a fancy wig halfway through because "this isn't me."
Since the film debuted online, Brzezinski-Conley said she receives 500 messages a night from people all over the world who want to thank her for making their wives feel better about cancer, teaching their daughters to appreciate their bodies, or just being courageous enough to show her scarred chest. She's received notes from fans in Poland, Russia, Kenya, India and New Zealand.
But perhaps the best reaction came from Brzezinski-Conley's mother.
"She started crying and said, 'I've never been so proud of you,'" Brzezinski-Conley said.
Still Brzezinski-Conley said she doesn't want to sugarcoat her experience with cancer.
Doctors diagnosed Brzezinski-Conley with breast cancer when she was 31 years old, and she had a double mastectomy as a result. Although she initially had two breast implants, one became infected because of the radiation, so it had to be removed.
"I've been through hell and back," she told ABCNews.com. "The chemo was so intense. I felt like it was killing me. The side effects you hear about and read about - it was times ten. But good things are finally starting to happen. "
Yet Brzezinski-Conley posed bare-chested for Bryce and Bartholomew proudly, flexing her arm muscles and smiling down at her scar in a few shots.
"If we can show everybody through her how to just be so beautiful, so beautiful with those scars out, then anybody pretty much can confront anything in themselves after seeing something that beautiful," Bryce says in the film.
Brzezinski-Conley says in the film she has a prosthetic breast, but she doesn't bother to wear it. She told ABCNews.com that people talk about mastectomies and breast cancer, but they never show what it looks like, and she wanted to change that.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women of all races, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2009, the most recent year available, nearly 212,000 women were diagnosed with the disease.
"I will say that the entire time that she was without clothes I never saw any scars on her body," Bryce said. "I only saw this incredible smile."