A diagnosis of breast cancer can mean many things. For some, it can mean fear and uncertainty. For others, it can be a pathway to finding their raw and real voices. For still others, it becomes a gateway to renewed vigor in the way they live their lives.
For Jill Johns, it was just one more step in a long journey to finding her true purpose.
Johns, originally from Minnesota, spent about 15 years in corporate America, and during that time, she worked her way from an entry level position to a vice president position in a relatively short amount of time. She says this climb added to the underlying stress she had at the time.
After her 40th birthday in 2015, Johns was required by her health insurance to get a mammogram. It was a no-brainer for her, since there was no family history of breast cancer and she was in overall good health.
The mammogram came back abnormal. On May 8, 2015, Johns was told the diagnosis was breast cancer.
“Everything just kind of cascades from there,” she said. “That’s when the swirl started.”
With family in the medical profession giving her advice, and a best friend who wanted her to treat with holistic methods, Johns and her husband, Ken, went back and forth on what type of treatment plan would be best for her.
Because the decision took so long, she wound up doing a lot of holistic practices anyway. She “turned up” her mindfulness and meditation practice, started journaling more, did a lot of reading, more yoga, and even pursued some of the more “out there” things like crystals and tarot readings.
In the end, she determined that a bilateral mastectomy was the right choice, so she had both breasts removed, followed by immediate reconstruction.
“I wanted to go to sleep and then wake up put back together,” she said.
Johns credits her supportive husband and family with making her cancer journey much easier. She also says that she realizes how lucky she was to have private insurance and the financial means to take time off work and travel for treatment, as well as access to education about her diagnosis and treatment.
The path that other women who are not so fortunate travel with their cancer diagnoses was something that touched Johns.
“I was really lucky. It just started to get to my heart. I’m really one of the lucky ones. I considered myself to have cancer lite. I didn’t have to suffer. I had kind of an inconvenient blip on my health radar. I was one of the lucky ones,” she said.
Three years later, Johns is happy and healthy, and sees the diagnosis as the tap on the shoulder she needed.
“For me, more than anything, it was a wakeup call about what I’m doing with my life. Am I living purposefully? Am I making an impact? Am I focusing on the right things? I knew I really wasn’t, you know?” she said. “There’s more to life than just going to work and collecting a paycheck and paying your bills. That’s where I am today.”
After her cancer diagnosis and the epiphany that followed, Johns realized that the skill set she had developed as a leadership development professional could be used to help women who’ve just gone through cancer and to help them thrive afterward. She founded Jill Johns International LLC to support those women. Through JJI, she leads interactive workshops and retreats.
About three months after her surgery, Johns went to a retreat with five local cancer survivors, and she went into it thinking about what she could do for them and what she could teach them to help them create purpose in their lives after cancer.
“I thought I was going to go into that weekend and help them. I went in to that weekend and they helped me,” she said.
Johns compared herself to an M&M candy — a hard outer shell, but “soft and gushy” on the inside.
“That retreat cracked me open,” she said. “I was like, what have I been doing? I need to quit focusing on myself and focus more on other people. This is so healing for me, and obviously it can be very healing for other people. And so we, every couple of months, would offer another retreat and bring more women together, and then eventually we ended up awarded a national award.”
The award was a $25,000 prize from SCORE, which focuses on supporting and recognizing some of the best small businesses in America. JJI was one of only two businesses in the state of Georgia which received the award. For Johns, this was confirmation she was moving the right direction.
“We knew we were on the right path and on to something,” she said.
But eventually, all that travel, while helpful for the cancer survivors, took its toll on Johns. She felt the pull between her work and time at home with her family. She and her husband have a blended family of four children. Johns began to desire a place to combine the work she was doing and her home.
“I just kept saying, out loud to anybody who would listen, someday, I’ll be able to live on property with my family and just share my home with people and change lives that way,” she said.
She was thinking that would be around 20 years from now. But in September 2017, her husband came home one day and asked her to take a drive with him. They wound up looking at a property in rural Bulloch County, and she instantly fell in love with it.
“I could feel it in my body, I could feel it in my heart, like, oh wouldn’t this be wonderful,” she said.
Purchasing the property didn’t work out, which left her confused, because it had felt right. Johns said the opportunity came back around about six weeks afterward and, another six weeks later, they were moving into their new home. This December, the family will celebrate the first anniversary of that move.
The property has since become the home to Space to Thrive. At first, Johns simply invited her “tribe” to the property to enjoy the peace and serenity, and then they brought their friends, and so on. Johns said she began to see wonderful things happening in the lives of those who came to the property.
In late summer 2018, Johns said they applied for Space to Thrive to become a nonprofit. She describes it as a mindfulness retreat center. Space to Thrive offers mindfulness meditation including a walking labyrinth; yoga; stand-up paddleboard yoga and meditation; detox including infrared saunas, ionic footbaths and massage; receptions, off-sites and retreats; and wellness and alternative products. You can go to the property and enjoy all it has to offer, or they can bring Space to Thrive to your business, social or civic organization, to teach mindfulness and simple ways to meditate and listen to yourself.
Johns says their vision for the property is getting people to “step out of the swirl” and the busyness of life for half an hour to a day to a week — whatever they need.
“They can come back, again and again, to keep recharging their battery,” she said. “When they’re out here, it really gives them the opportunity to connect with nature, which we’re doing less and less of. It gives them the opportunity to connect with other people, who are also recognizing that they need it.”
Providing a buffet style listing of offerings at Space to Thrive is important, Johns says, because not everyone wants to order the same thing off the menu.
“If 10 of us went to a restaurant, we’d all order something different. So if 10 people were to come out here, all 10 might like something different. Some people might enjoy paddle boarding, and some people might like to mediate on the paddleboards, or some people might like to do yoga on the paddle boards. Other people might just want to sit in the treehouse while some people might want to walk the labyrinth. Some people might just want to sit and overlook the pond. We want to provide a variety of different mediums for people so that they can pick what works best for them and do it in a way that‘s safe and comfortable,” she said.
Johns said she’d like to someday add small cabins to the property to allow for artists and musicians to come and stay and collaborate. She’d also love to add them so that breast cancer survivors can come together for longer retreats.
“What you learn out here is a way that you can plug yourself in and recharge yourself throughout the day, because it can be really hard work to make it to the end of the day without being completely exhausted,” she said, adding that she, along with other instructors at Space to Thrive, can teach healthy and holistic ways to do this.
So Johns’ own journey has brought her to the place where she can support others on theirs. She says the greatest lesson she has learned is that “it takes courage to be you.” She encourages others to stand up and be their authentic selves.
“I will be a cheerleader on the sidelines, cheering you on, and encouraging you, hopefully clapping the loudest and drowning out the boos and hisses with my clapping and cheering. And that’s the space I like to create for other people in everything that I do,” she said.
For more information on Space to Thrive or to contact Johns, go online at www.spacetothrive.org.