Broadcaster Jill Emberson knows the importance of life in the face of death. Diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2016, she is now in stage four of the deadly disease, often labelled the “silent killer”.
“It was totally devastating but I was pretty confident at the time of diagnosis that I’d beat it,” she says. “But within six months, my cancer came back and when ovarian cancer returns it’s terminal. There’s no cure.”
Living with an incurable disease fuelledJill’s journalistic instinct to tell stories – this time, her own. Having spent years as presenter of Mornings at ABC Newcastle, she began recording sound bites of her treatment on her phone before coming up with the idea of a podcast she called Still Jill.
“It’s called Still Jill because I wanted it to be about being alive and being who I am,” she says. “I’ve got the skill to tell my story living with a disease that so little is known about. I’ve met lots of women who felt really lonely with ovarian cancer, which kind of lives in the shadow of breast cancer.”
Released in 2018, the podcast charts Jill’s life from her diagnosis, through her treatment to being proposed to in a hospital ward by her partner Ken and their marriage in September last year.
“It starts on a really dark note,” she says. “The second episode is the incredibly difficult moment of telling my daughter that not only did I have cancer but I was not going to survive.”
After decades of being the journalist asking the questions, Jill found it challenging being the subject of a story. But Still Jill received more than 60,000 downloads when it was first released and in May it won the Documentary and Storytelling Award at the Australian Podcast Awards.
Despite her prognosis, Jill now advocates for equity in funding for ovarian cancer research, striving to beat a disease that claims the lives of 80 per cent of the 1,600 women diagnosed each year. Unlike breast cancer, which receives four times more money in funding, ovarian cancer has no screening test.
Many women believe, incorrectly, that a pap smear, which tests for cervical cancer, is a screening test for ovarian cancer.
“Nobody has spent the money to do the research that’s required to discover a screening test,” says Jill. “I reckon that mostly women have just accepted that this is the way it is. But when I learnt that, I just got angry. The campaigner in me went, ‘No, that’s not good enough.’
“So we need some very fundamental things to change with this cancer to make a difference. I will rest easy if, in 30 years’ time, the survival rate is more like 90 per cent. That there’s a screening test and that it is not a death sentence for women. That is my dream. That is a hope that really keeps me going.”
In what is often taxing and emotional work, Jill gives as much of her time as possible to fighting the cause. She has been the face of Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month 2019, has spoken to the Prime Minister directly about increasing funds for research and addressed the National Press Club on ovarian cancer, the first person to do so. She also co-founded Pink Meets Teal, a campaign to highlight the disparity in funding between breast and ovarian cancer research.
She is driven by wanting to change the 46 per cent survival rate for women with ovarian cancer (in comparison to the 91 per cent survival rate for breast cancer) and for her daughter, Malia, now in her early twenties.
“If I had of known at her age what I know about ovarian cancer now I would not be looking at my own death sentence,” she says.
In 2018, the Federal Government announced $20 million for research into ovarian cancer, the biggest sum ever allocated to the disease in Australia.
“Can you believe that?” says Jill. “Huge amounts of money have been spent on research into breast cancer and prostate cancer, and that’s why they have such high survival rates.”
Other women with ovarian cancer have fought for more funding, she says, but most die before being able to see their campaigns bring about change.
“I consider myself both unlucky and lucky. Unlucky to have this cancer, but lucky to have a voice. To be well enough, to be shameless enough to go out and knock on doors, to ask people to give me a hand, to ask my employer, ‘Could I make a podcast about my sickness?’ And to wait and keep pushing until I got answers.”
But it’s the only way it could be for the tenacious journalist. “Lending a hand, making a difference is in my nature so it’s an inevitable choice that I have made to do this kind of work. I think it makes my daughter proud, and my husband, so that makes me happy. Setting a good example for my girl.”
Life, she says, is a gift, a privilege, something not to be wasted. “I’ve always loved life and I’ve been lucky I’ve had a great life. But I think the biggest thing that I’ve learnt is that it’s not a dress rehearsal, it’s now. And if you don’t do it now, you never know, it might be taken away from you. So step up, make the most of it.”
Everyone can give back in some way, even just by being kind, she says. Be thankful for what you’ve got but also reach out to help other people.
“When you help others, it’s the biggest gift back to you. That sounds like a selfish way of looking at it but, when you give, when you’re nice to somebody, when you lend a hand, when you offer help, it triggers a fantastic vibe in your own heart.
“And, I dunno, life’s better when you help out.”