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Calendar of courage: Fall City woman’s daring nude pose celebrates cancer survivors

Donning white wings and not much else, Fall City resident Jill Holen poses for the Angel Care survivor calendar. - Courtesy photo
Donning white wings and not much else, Fall City resident Jill Holen poses for the Angel Care survivor calendar.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

Never lose sleep over a hairstyle, is calendar girl Jill Holen’s advice.

“There’s no such thing as a bad hair day, because it just isn’t that important,” says Holen, a former professional hairstylist. Neither, for that matter, is posing nearly nude in a fund-raising calendar.

Holen, whose own hair is shiny, blonde and beautiful, has fought hard for this perspective over the past 10 years, ever since she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and thought she was going to die.

“It was an extremely scary thing, because I’d never known anyone to go through cancer treatment before,” the Fall City woman said. “The only comments I’d ever gotten from anybody were ‘oh, my aunt had it just like you, and she died,’ so not very helpful.”

Her family, friends and the cancer program at Overlake Hospital got her through. About a year later, cancer-free, she found what she’d been hoping for when she was a new patient, the nonprofit Angel Care.

“It’s a positive place to be and to help people,” she explained.

Angel Care, founded by breast cancer survivor Jan Harris, connects other survivors, women and men, with newly diagnosed cancer patients for mentoring and support. A volunteer mentor, Holen is now the angel she’d wished for 10 years ago when she got her diagnosis.

“I was in such terror the whole time,” she said of her treatment. So, when she heard about Angel Care, she knew it was for her. “I just wanted to help other women not be so scared for the journey, because it truly is a journey, and unless you’ve been there, you just don’t know.”

Her own journey included two lumpectomies, daily radiation, chemotherapy, going “balder than a billiard ball,” and a few years later, a hysterectomy to remove uterine cancer that may have been caused by the tamoxifen she took for five years for her breast cancer. She continued working throughout her treatment, at Chief Kanim Middle School (she is now at North Bend Elementary) where her special education students learned about cancer right along with her.

“The kids just rallied around me. A lot of the kids would come and ask questions… and one little girl would touch my ‘hair,’” she said. “They knew the medicine made my hair fall out, but that it would come back, and I would be well.”

She knew it, too, but she also knew she had to keep on fighting the cancer, however she could.

“My last day of radiation was May 7 (2002) and in August I did the 3-Day walk,” a fund-raiser for cancer research. “I just kept thinking it was another mountain to climb. It was another step in getting well….Your mental status has everything to do with your progression and your well-being.”

Showing that courage has made Holen a role model at Angel Care, but her other modeling role for the organization, the calendar, made her dig even deeper into reserves of courage.

“God knows I never thought I’d pose in a nude calendar,” she said. But that was three calendars ago.

Angel Care’s 2012 fundraising calendar features Holen and 11 other survivors of breast cancer, wearing nothing more than angel wings, but charmingly camouflaged with feather boas, hats, and other props—Holen is behind a bench, for example.

Far from being embarrassed by the calendar, which goes on sale this week, Holen says “It makes me proud that I’ve fought my fight.”

This year’s calendar is particularly special to Holen because she finally got her month of choice—May, for her birthday, and for the milestone it represents.

“I finished out my five years on the Tamoxifen, and then I just finished my fifth year of Arimidex, so I’m medicine free now,” she said. “It’s kind of a big step, kind of a scary step, too.”

Her family, husband Al, daughter Kristin and son Tim, and friends have been with her every step of her journey so far, she said, adding that she feels really blessed for that alone.

Cancer has changed Holen’s life in other ways, too. “Being a hairdresser, hair’s been important to me all my life,” she said, but after she lost her own hair, she heard a colleague complain of staying up all night fussing with her hair after a bad haircut, and “I said ‘I can’t connect with that,’ and put my hat on, and walked away.”

“I have learned a lot about myself, in what’s important, and what’s little,” she said. “Your priorities come right to the surface. I don’t take days for granted.”

• To learn more about Angel Care, visit www.angelcarefoundation.org.

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