Wearing her sash and crown, Miss Connecticut lights up every room she enters, bringing smiles and encouragement to patients who are battling cancer and other illnesses at Connecticut Children’s.
As a former pediatric cancer patient herself, Jillian Duffy knows how scary a cancer diagnosis can be. She bravely faced two-and-a-half years of treatment for a type of cancer affecting her blood and bone marrow called Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL). Today, as Miss Connecticut, Jillian shares her inspiring story of hope from a cancer journey that began nearly a decade ago.
“My favorite part is just being here and being able to talk to the kids and, hopefully, give them some inspiration,” said Jillian, who makes monthly visits to the inpatient floors at Connecticut Children’s.
“These kids inspire me every single day. They remind me of what I’m fighting for; they are the reason I do this.”
An Unexpected Turn
Jillian, who turned 23 in February, was crowned Miss Connecticut in June 2019 following a year as Miss Wolcott (she also held six other previous titles). A cancer diagnosis at age 13 was simply part of the journey, an unexpected turn in the road.
“I was a very healthy kid; I rarely got sick,” said Jillian, a Burlington native and the oldest daughter of Chris and Sue Duffy. “I was a competitive dancer, so I was dancing six days a week. Going to school, I was a straight-A student. I had a lot of friends and I was always busy.”
Then in May of 2010, Jillian hurt her foot while doing a “Pacer Test” at school, cutting a corner too quickly. “When I got back to dance that summer, I was really tired, winded and out of breath,” she recalled.
When Jillian returned to school that fall, everything seemed OK—at first. But when the 8th grader failed her first science test, red flags went up. Then there were mysterious bruises on her forearms that others had started to notice.
“I was really frustrated at that point because I knew something wasn’t right, but the fact that other people saw that something wasn’t right scared me,” Jillian said.
An Unexpected Diagnosis
From there, her health declined rapidly. First, she was diagnosed with a double-ear infection, and then a subsequent trip to the pediatrician’s office for blood work indicated something far worse. The next stop: Connecticut Children’s.
Jillian remembers that day in vivid detail. That was the day she met Kerry Moss, MD, a hematologist/oncologist, who remembers it vividly, too. “The day she presented at the clinic, we knew it was leukemia,” Dr. Moss said.
“Jillian was appropriately scared,” Dr. Moss recalled, “but she had this amazing energy and grace. It was shortly thereafter that she told me she would be Miss Connecticut someday.”
With support from family and friends—including her 10-year-old sister, Allison—Jillian began chemotherapy. “The first six months were very intense when she was actively fighting the disease,” Dr. Moss said. “But she was resilient and she brought the attitude of survivor ship. She did beautifully.”
Jillian responded well to chemo, but there were some setbacks. Her biggest complication was a stroke in July of 2011. But she battled through, learning to speak and write again.
“Right after I beat cancer, I was back at dance, I was back at school and I was competing in pageants,” said Jillian, a 2015 graduate of Lewis S. Mills High School who began her studies at Southern Connecticut State University that fall. Now a senior, Jillian took the year off to focus on her role as Miss Connecticut.
The scholarships she earns as Miss Connecticut will help her pay for her college education, when she returns to complete her degree in business administration and marketing.
“Jillian’s Journey” and Pediatric Cancer
As Miss Connecticut, Jillian’s “platform” is pediatric cancer—a cause she hopes to raise awareness about and impact change. It is appropriately called “Jillian’s Journey.”
“My battle with cancer led me to my platform and really led me to the Miss America Organization,” she said. “Jillian’s Journey started off as a story of a 13-year-old young woman defying the odds and beating cancer; throughout the years it has turned into more than that: I not only share my battle against cancer to raise funds for pediatric cancer research and clinical trials, but I also work with organizations to make the battle a little bit easier by working with patients and families.”
“Not only has my battle with cancer fueled my social impact, but it has fueled my future,” said Jillian, who is grateful for the care and support she received as a cancer patient and throughout her journey. “When I graduate, I want to work for a nonprofit organization that works with patients and families, providing them with the resources they need.”
“I truly believe this is what I was meant to do,” she said.
To support cancer research and patient care at Connecticut Children’s Center for Cancer & Blood disorders, please visit give.connecticutchildrens.org/donate, or call the Foundation at 860.837.5700.