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There’s no good time to find out you have cancer — but the middle of a tight city council race seems like a particularly bad time

Jillia Pessenda had just turned 35 when she got the phone call from the Masonic Cancer Center at the University of Minnesota.

Jillia Pessenda
Courtesy of Jillia Pessenda
Jillia Pessenda: "I was just sort of in shock. It was like, the only thing I can do is go door knock, because I have to win this election."
Four weeks before the biggest election of her life, Jillia Pessenda felt a lump in her left breast. It was October 2017, and Pessenda, one of the bright lights in a political landscape that brought women candidates to races and women voters to the polls in unprecedented numbers, was embroiled in a neck-and-neck race with incumbent Kevin Reich for a seat on the Minneapolis city council, representing Ward 1.

“We were running on a platform of racial and economic justice,” said Pessenda recently, sitting in the Northeast Minneapolis home she shares with her partner, Monica Meyer. “We were running a grassroots campaign, really trying to organize our community in a way that hasn’t been organized in this part of the city before. It was going really well. It was such a positive campaign. The community that was built through our campaign was so inspiring, and we really believed we were going to win. Numbers were looking good, and momentum was on our side, but we knew it was going to be close.”

Pessenda’s mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer at 39, and tested negative to the genetic passing of the cancer gene. Jillia had just turned 35 when she got the phone call from the Masonic Cancer Center at the University of Minnesota.

“It was a Friday afternoon, and I was just getting ready to go door-knocking,” she said. “I assumed it was something benign, a cyst or something, and they just called and said, ‘You have cancer.’ I’m like, ‘What does that mean? What do I do?’ They’re like, ‘Would you like to start with the oncologist or the surgeon?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I’ve never had cancer before, what the hell do I do? I have to go door-knock. I can’t deal with this right now.’ I was just sort of in shock. It was like, the only thing I can do is go door knock, because I have to win this election.”

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Did she ever feel like putting the breaks on her campaign?

“For a moment, that weekend, my core campaign team and I and my partner Monica did have a conversation about ‘Do we keep going, or do we stop?’ I thought about it for two minutes,” she said. “I was like, ‘Absolutely, we’re doing this. We’re going to fight cancer, we’re going to fight for this campaign, and we’re going to win.’”

For the next few weeks, Pessenda juggled campaigning with cancer treatment. She kept the information private, tried to stay positive, and kept hitting the campaign trail.

“I am really passionate about ensuring that women are at the table, in terms of who’s making the laws and policies,” she said. “I’m the political director at Women Winning, and we work to ensure that there are pro-choice women at every level of government across the state. For me, especially in the time of Trump and this administration, and the extreme misogyny, sexism and racism that we are living under, it is so important, and I am so driven to make sure that I can support women in their journey toward elected office, and use my experience and my knowledge and my skills to help them.”

The day after the election, ballots were still being counted in the Ward 1 race when Pessenda landed at the Masonic Cancer Center for her first round of chemotherapy.

“I was actually getting my port in,” she said. “I remember going into the operating room, knowing that we were very close — neck and neck — and knowing that by the time I got out, we would know the results. It was totally surreal. I got my port in, came out of surgery, and found out I’d lost the election. We lost by 185 votes. It was a bad week.”

Now 36 and her cancer in remission, the Duluth native is ready to talk about her journey, and about her continuing mission as one of Minneapolis’ most promising “insurgent” leaders. She says she’s ready, willing, and able to serve — but she doesn’t sugarcoat the experience.

“I’m a fighter, for sure, and I think it’s strengthened my resolve, but it also has been hard,” said Pessenda. “I’ve also taken a hit, and I want to be honest about that because I don’t want to project this image of myself that’s just always strong and fighting, because I have been horribly sick in bed and depressed and feeling like a complete failure. I think you go through all of those phases and honestly, I’m just starting to come out of the depths of it. But when you go through hell, it’s your community that holds you through that, and for me that gives me strength and hope.

“Going through cancer, and a cancer diagnosis, makes things really clear in terms of what really matters. I’m incredibly passionate about creating a more reflective, representative democracy before cancer and after cancer, and I believe that work is important and inspiring and I’m committed to it, still. And: I’m also, having gone through cancer, it’s also not my whole life anymore, and it can’t be.

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“What I’ve realized for myself is that I need to have a whole life. It can’t just be the work, it can’t just be organizing, it can’t just be fighting for these things that we so badly want to see in the world. We also have to fight for ourselves and create space to be whole beings.”

How does that look in the self-described former workaholic’s world these days?

“For me, now, it’s pretty simple stuff,” she said. “Spending time with friends, taking walks, creating space for self-care, and for me that means yoga, hiking, spending time with my family and my partner, and not this constant go-go-go.”

Pessenda first made a name for herself as a community organizer, so it’s no surprise that her role as leader now includes talking publicly about her battle with cancer.

“I know a number of women who’ve had breast cancer early in their lives. It’s shocking. One in four women will get breast cancer in their lifetime,” she said. “I think there’s strength in being vulnerable, and we’re not taught that — especially women. When I came out about what I was going through after the election, so many women reached out to me to share their experiences — many of them in elected office. People are more private, and that’s totally fine, but I think a lot of it is this pressure to be perfect, and this pressure as women that if we are in elected office, the bar is so high and there’s still so much sexism, if we are vulnerable and if we show a quote-unquote weakness, if we have an illness, if we have cancer, then we are seen as not competent or we’re a weak leader or a vulnerable leader, and I really want to change that narrative.

“As women, we are whole people and whole beings, and there needs to be space for us to be vulnerable. So for me, it was really important to be public and to share my experiences. Through that I’ve been connected to a lot of women who are going through incredible journeys with their mental and physical health.

“Going through cancer is hell. And: you can do it. I’m stronger, but being stronger to me means being more vulnerable. So I continue to be open and honest about what I’m going through. I’ve been very connected with other women who are very public about their journey with cancer, and that’s been really healing, and I want to continue to be here for women who are struggling and who need someone to help get them through wherever they may be at in their journey. Because for me, getting through those six months of chemo or three months of radiation—the way that I got through it was other survivors sharing with me their stories and their light.”

Inspired by the philosophy of author/doula/feminist Adrienne Maree Brown and her book/movement “Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good,” Pessenda said she intends to fight for herself and for Minnesota over the long haul.

“In 2020, I am looking forward to ensuring that we keep a pro-choice majority in the Minnesota House and flipping the Senate,” she said. “We need to elect a pro-choice majority to the Senate, and I believe that women will lead and do that work. And I hope that we can elect a Democratic [presidential] nominee that’s a pro-choice woman. I think it’s time. Past time.”

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In the same leadership breath, she wants women to know about the resources that have helped her over the last two years: The Young Survival Coalition Facebook page; the Masonic center and the Penny George Institute. She’s also hoping to put together an event at the Coven in October for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

“It’s a part of me, now,” she said. “Unfortunately and fortunately, I can’t just close the door and move on. It’s important for me to be honest about that women go through this, and that it’s common, and that we can survive, and succeed, and rule the world. And, it’s hell.”