Protravel’s Jill Lustigman: Fighting Back

Breast cancer survivor Jill Lustigman tells the inspiring story of her ordeal as a way to “pay it forward.”

August 24, 2017 was a very special day for Jill Lustigman, a travel advisor with Protravel International. It was her birthday and a “graduation” day of sorts; she had just completed her final dose of radiation treatment for the disease. We caught up with Lustigman on that very day as she very enthusiastically shared her story of battling breast cancer, which she’d been diagnosed with on December 15, 2016.

But first, a few words about Lustigman, who resides in New Jersey and uses Protravel’s Roseland office as her home base, although she works from home most days. She’s been in this business for seven years and calls being a travel advisor her “encore career.”

“I was actually a senior vice president account director at Young & Rubicam for 20 years and Elaine Pesky [of Protravel] was my family’s travel agent,” Lustigman tells us. A top account there was Club Med and she was instrumental in creating the American Express / Starwood card.

“Travel was always in my blood,” says Lustigman.

Her three-day work schedule fit her lifestyle; she was a mother of two small children and a recent transplant from New York City to the New Jersey suburbs. However, when the economy headed south in the “Great Recession,” she was asked to work five days a week.

That option simply wasn’t viable and so Lustigman decided it was time to try something new. Her husband, a marketing attorney, told her to take the time to find something she was passionate about.

“Find what you love at this point in your life,” she recalls him saying. And she did when she went to Protravel’s Roseland, NJ branch and met her future mentors, Linda Schuller and Laura D’Angelo, who were running the office at the time. When she heard about the potential of being a travel advisor, she was hooked.

“I fell in love. I was like, ‘This is the greatest thing ever!’” says Lustigman.

The career move was a success. Her business grew to the point where she had a team in the Roseland office to assist her. She also hired an assistant, Caitlin Harsch, who works in Lustigman’s home three days a week.

The working-from-home set up with Harsch, established just prior to Lustigman’s breast cancer diagnosis, worked well from the start since there were few distractions, and the two could tag team on what needed to be done for their clients.
The symbiotic relationship had even more value after Lustigman fell ill.

“Even on my darkest days, when I was lying in bed, [Caitlin] would come upstairs with the laptop and ask, ‘What do you think we should do for this client?’ And I’d say, ‘Check this hotel or check that hotel or reach out to this person or that person and see what they have.’ And together we were able to be a whole person,” she tells Travel Agent magazine.

A Difficult Year

Lustigman’s challenges began even before her breast cancer diagnosis last year. She lost her father to pancreatic cancer on September 10, 2016, and then her mother was diagnosed with an illness in October. “And in November, I went to scratch an itch after Thanksgiving, and found a lump, which I assumed was a lymph node or an ingrown hair,” she recalls.

Lustigman wasn’t super alarmed. She felt fully armed with a vast knowledge of breast cancer already. Her mother-in-law, who was also a physician, had died from breast and ovarian cancer and before passing away had made everyone in the family promise to be vigilant about getting checkups. Taking heed, Lustigman, now in her late 40s, had already had eight mammograms and ultrasounds over the years. When she found the lump in November, she’d just been tested in June, and her test results were clean.

To boot, there hadn’t been a single incident of cancer on her side of the family until her father’s diagnosis that year. “I didn’t for a minute think it was breast cancer,” she says and so she let it go until a few weeks later, she felt the lump again.

That time, she picked up the phone and called her Ob /Gyn doctor, who didn’t express alarm.

“It’s nothing, but let’s be sure it’s nothing,” she told Lustigman, who promptly called the imaging center that had conducted her last test. They told her that coincidentally they had just had a cancellation for 10 a.m. the next morning and to come in, but she hesitated because of her busy schedule. It was already the second week of December and she was extremely busy with clients going away for the Festive season.

“Just come in,” they told her and so she matter-of-factly added it to her calendar, calmly telling her kids she had an appointment the following day and would pick them up at 3 p.m.

A World Upside Down

During the ultrasound the radiologist kept “digging and digging” and was so intent, she even asked Lustigman to stop asking questions so she could focus.

Then a doctor asked Lustigman if anyone had accompanied her to the appointment. When Lustigman told her “no,” the doctor proceeded to tell her that there was a lump that needed to be biopsied.

“It wasn’t there in June but it’s pretty big,” she said.

The conversation got worse.

“It’s angry and it’s aggressive and I think we have a problem,” said the physician.

“It’s not cancer, though?” asked Lustigman

“I don’t want you to get freaked out,” said the doctor, who finally relented. “I think it’s cancer.”

That was a Wednesday. Lustigman called her husband, her mother and a girlfriend who had had breast cancer. As she said the words to them, she felt that “It just didn’t seem to be real.”

That Friday, she got the biopsy back; the lump was malignant. On Monday, she had an MRI. On Wednesday, Lustigman was in Protravel’s office in Roseland when her phone rang. Her Ob / Gyn read her the MRI results, which indicated the cancer was possibly already metastatic and had spread to her spine and possibly her chest wall.

A colleague immediately brought Lustigman to a conference room and called her husband for her. “Come now,” she told him.

Words of Hope

Her world in turmoil, Lustigman called a very dear friend and client, Dr. Allyson Ocean at Cornell-Weill Hospital, who had also been her father’s oncologist, and sent over her test results for review. In return, she got back words of hope.

“I couldn’t save your father, but I’m going to do everything I can to save you,” the oncologist said. She suspected the tests were showing a “false / positive” verdict and that the cancer had not spread, that it was metabolic activity lighting up the MRI near her spine and chest.

She told Lustigman to get a PET scan, which is an imaging test that allows a physician to check for disease throughout your body. The oncologist’s suspicions were correct. The PET scan indicated the cancer had not spread.

“So in the course of a week, I went from Stage 4 cancer to Stage 3 to Stage 2,” said Lustigman, who was incredibly busy at the office prepping clients for their holiday vacations; in fact, it was a time when she receives half of her bookings for the year in terms of volume.

“People were asking me, ‘Should I bring a sweatshirt to Costa Rica?’ And I was like, ‘Um, I don’t know right now. Can I get back to you?’”

Serious Diagnosis

There was more to be learned about her condition however. Tests showed that Lustigman had “triple-negative breast cancer.”

“When it happens to younger women it’s very aggressive, it spreads very fast,” Lustigman says. “Sixty percent of the time it recurs, and not in the breast, in another piece of soft tissue like the brain or the liver or the lungs. And it cannot be treated after with hormonal therapy because it’s a non-hormonal cancer. Unlike 80 percent of breast cancers, it’s not driven by hormones.”

That called for very aggressive treatment, particularly after doctors determined her Ki score was 67. (Average breast cancers are in the 20-30 range, she says.) Additionally, the lump was already more than three centimeters in size and they knew it hadn’t been there in June.

Time was of the essence. Lustigman researched New York hospitals and chose the Dubin Breast Center at Mount Sinai in Manhattan the moment she walked through its doors. “It looked like a medispa,” she recalls. “There were fresh flowers, there was spa music, there were apples and oranges, hand sanitizer, anything you needed. It was all right there for you.”

Best part? All of her treatments would take place there: chemotherapy, radiation and oncologist visits. That everyone there was being treated for breast cancer was another major plus. When Lustigman had accompanied her father on visits to his oncologist during his treatment for pancreatic cancer, it had been very difficult to endure.

“My father would look at the other patients and say, ‘That person is dying, look at that person. They’re gray. That person’s liver has shut down.’ He would look at them and see his future,” says Lustigman, who wanted a more positive environment for her treatment. “Breast cancer is a treatable cancer no matter what stage you’re at. I wanted to be around that hope; that was important to me.”

Dr. Elisa Port, Dubin’s medical director, who also ended up being Lustigman’s surgeon, didn’t hesitate to take her on.

“Looking at your cancer, it wouldn’t have mattered who you knew. I was going to find a way to fit you in,” Port had told her. Lustigman was also encouraged to learn the center had an oncologist, Dr. Hanna Irie, who treated only those with triple-negative breast cancer.

When Lustigman met Port on a Monday, she asked her if she could start chemotherapy that day. Dr. Port said she’d need to have an echocardiogram first. Ever planning ahead, Lustigman said she’d already had one and had brought the film results with her.

“I did my homework,” said Lustigman, who says that is the same way she works for her clients.

“It’s all about the research. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, then how do you have a conversation? As I say to my clients, ‘I can’t know everything about every place in the world. What I can do is find the best resource, learn what I can, and figure out who to trust to be your go-between. That’s my job,’” she says.

Not Missing a Beat

Lustigman ended up starting her chemotherapy that Friday, but that’s not all she did that weekend. She took the family vacation that had already been in the works.

“I got on a plane, as a true travel advisor would, and went to Arizona for a festive vacation on Saturday,” she tells Travel Agent. It wasn’t easy, but she wanted to be strong for her family and so off she went on the plane, wearing a mask and gloves, and a pump for chemo medication hooked up to her abdomen.

She didn’t just lie around the Tucson resort, feeling sorry for herself, either. Like a real trooper, she went hot-air ballooning and hiking.

“I had to do it. I had to show my family that not everybody you love dies from cancer,” says Lustigman. “[My children] had lost two of their four grandparents to cancer and I was determined that this would not be me,” she says.

A Fighting Approach

What Lustigman had embarked upon was a very aggressive series of chemotherapy treatments — 21 rounds in all. She started with four rounds, two weeks apart and then moved on to 12 weekly treatments. It was difficult but proved to have good results. At one point, doctors determined following an ultrasound that the tumor had shrunk considerably. That meant still more aggressive treatment, however; doctors added Carboplatin to get at the cancer that could have potentially spread through her bloodstream.

“The Carboplatin was brutal because it attacks your bone marrow,” says Lustigman, who recalls asking, “‘Are you killing the cancer or are you killing me?’ I couldn’t get up the stairs. I would have to rest halfway up. You’re out of breath constantly.”

During this time, she had tremendous support from her mother who lives five miles away from her, from her sister who lives in Connecticut, and from her husband who dropped everything to help take care of her.

“The whole community rallied around me. I didn’t cook a meal from January to May. Somebody brought us dinner every single night. Somebody took my kids to school, somebody picked them up. It was really unbelievable, and everyone said to me, ‘Just get well, that’s your job right now.’”

She also kept up with her work, with the help of her assistant, Caitlin (who she calls a “heroine”) and with her colleagues at Protravel, who provided tremendous back up for her. “We would work out a deadline, we would work out deliverables and I would do whatever it took to deliver. The organization as a whole, Gail Grimmett [Protravel’s president], Melinda Gerdts, who’s our manager in New Jersey, Linda Schuller and Laura D’Angelo were so incredibly supportive. They would say to me, ‘How much of Donna [our house agent] do you need this month?’ And they would structure it in such a way that I could get the help I needed.”

She didn’t keep her illness a secret from her clients, either, despite advice from her husband and mother.

“I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? This is who I am and if they don’t trust me to deliver what I need to deliver to them, I don’t want to work with them,’” Lustigman said at the time.

“There were some clients that disappeared, but very, very, very few,” she recalls.

She didn’t sacrifice her children’s school vacations, either. When it came time for their April break a few months ago, Lustigman planned a trip to Florida, as she was unable to leave the country because of her treatment. And she was ready for a break from everything.

“I just wanted some sun. I wanted some saltwater, I just wanted to be away,” says Lustigman.

On her day of departure, however, she went to the hospital to have her blood work done and her doctor told her she wouldn’t be traveling that day because she needed a blood transfusion. In tears, Lustigman called her Delta rep, who moved things around and arranged for her to get on the last flight to Florida that evening, after she’d had the transfusion. Delta even arranged for her to have a medical escort through LaGuardia Airport and offered her a wheelchair, which she declined, wanting to appear strong. She was allowed on the airplane first, with her mask and gloves, and the flight attendants treated her with TLC, she recalls.

“It came to me then that when people hear the word, ‘cancer,’ they’re so kind,” says Lustigman. “I joke that it’s a sorority that nobody ever wants to join. People see you in the store, they look at you and you’re wearing a bandana or a hat or whatever and they’re looking at you sideways and you’re like, ‘It’s not a fashion statement.’ Then they’ll say, ‘That’s what I thought, do you mind if I ask you some questions because my sister was just diagnosed…”

It’s this dynamic that made Lustigman want to share her story for our Pink Issue. “People text me, ‘My friend was just diagnosed, can you talk to her? You seem to have just gotten through it so amazingly, would you talk to them? Would you counsel them?’”

When this happens, Lustigman’s response is always, “Absolutely,” she says. “I don’t know what I can tell them, I’m not a doctor, but I can certainly point them in the right direction.”

Getting through the 21 rounds of chemo wasn’t the end of the battle. After a four-week break, she underwent a bilateral lumpectomy. She was in a good place at the time. “My tumor was down to almost zero,” she says. Doctors had discovered something in her other breast that proved not to be malignant, but because she knew they’d always be checking it out, she opted to have that removed as well.

The surgery, which was done as an outpatient procedure, went so well that Lustigman was home and on the phone with a client that afternoon. She’s delighted to report that she has no scars and that there’s virtually no evidence she even had the surgery.

Ready for Radiation

She took another four weeks off from treatment and went away on a vacation with her family to celebrate. Then began 33 days of radiation therapy. The effects of that are quite different from chemo, she says.

“I feel crispy, like fried chicken,” Lustigman tells us, referring to the intense burning sensation that often comes with radiation.

Looking back, she says that people warned her that she would feel like falling asleep as she went through radiation and she admits she did feel tired a few weeks ago. “You do 28 regular whole-breast radiation treatments and then you do five boosts just on your incision site.” Despite the discomfort, she could see the results. “When the 28th day was over, you could immediately see it was starting to heal,” she says.

How did she get through the long treatment process? Lustigman says she just put her head down, put one foot in front of the other and just kept moving forward.

“You can’t think about, ‘What if.’  You can’t think about, ‘Why me?’” she says. “You just have to say, ‘Let’s just get it done. Let’s just go. I have so much life to live, why am I spending my time thinking about what I didn’t do or what I could have done?’”

The cancer treatments have had an effect; neuropathy has numbed three toes on each of her feet and so she’s got to wear shoes with flat heels now. “I have a great shoe collection that is collecting dust in my closet,” Lustigman says. But that doesn’t get her down, even when she says she’d lost every hair on her body. As her hair grows back in she says she currently has a Sinead O’Connor hairstyle and can’t wait until it grows to more like Annie Lenox’s chic, cropped look.

The hair loss brought its frustrations. “Honestly, I didn’t mind losing my scalp hair as much as I missed my eyebrows and my eyelashes,” she says. “I didn’t want to leave the house. Any time I went somewhere, someone would say, ‘Let’s take a picture!’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t want to remember this part. I want time to fade this. I don’t want to look back and be like, ‘Oh God, remember I looked like a rabbit?’”

Weight gain was another issue. People would tell her she looked healthy for someone with cancer and she’d reply it was because she had gained 20 pounds. “Between the steroids and lying in bed for six months, you gain a lot of weight and that was hard,” she says.

As she relays these challenges, Lustigman is quick to note she really has nothing to complain about. “I’m so lucky,” she says of her quick diagnosis and treatment.

And life goes on. Remember her father’s oncologist, Dr. Ocean, who helped her out at the onset of her challenge? Lustigman just sent her on a vacation to Sicily. In fact, she has remained very much in “travel advisor” mode all year. Throughout her plight, she said, people would ask her if she minded booking them on a trip and Lustigman’s reply was that she was living vicariously through their travel.

“I wasn’t experiencing the joy myself, but I got to give it to other people and that in itself was rewarding. It kept me going,” she says. “Whatever I could do to make things special for people during that period meant a lot to me. It was a very emotional time, so every trip was very special.”

Now, having “graduated” from cancer treatment, Lustigman still feels that way about her clients; and happily reports that some of them even drove her to chemotherapy appointments.

Thanks to so much emotional and business support, Lustigman says that she’s had her biggest year in 2017. What’s her advice to others who may be facing a plight similar to hers? Do not hesitate to seek assistance from others.

“You can’t be afraid to ask,” she says. “People don’t know what to offer at first but the minute you ask, you won’t believe the support you’ll get. My vendors — I don’t want to call them vendors — they are my partners, my colleagues, everybody bent over backwards. I couldn’t have done it without this village,” she says.

As for the future, Lustigman has more travel lined up and that’s what keeps her going, the excitement of a conference or a visit to a luxury hotel. She wasn’t able to attend Virtuoso Travel Week this year in Las Vegas as she was still undergoing radiation therapy, but will attend ILTM in December. She has another festive vacation lined up for her family to commemorate her “cancer-versary.”

In fact, travel has proven to be part of what drove Lustigman to face her disease head on. When she started chemotherapy, people advised her to reward herself after each dose. Instead, she set “trip goals” for her family to look forward to. She’s learned to love domestic travel and went to Rhode Island for a summer vacation and when we spoke on the day she ended radiation therapy, she told us she was headed to a lovely resort in New Jersey that she’d discovered.

Looking back, the past nine months have been tough, but not the way people made it out to be.

“I never, for a minute, thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ Ever. And that story would have been important for me to hear early on,” she tells Travel Agent. It’s for that reason she wants to share her story and she welcomes contact with anyone who would like to reach out to her to find out more about what her experience was like. “The least I can do,” she tells us, “is pay it forward.” 

Dubin Breast Center

Each year, Travel Agent magazine asks our cover subject for our Pink Issue to select a breast cancer cause she would like us to contribute to on her behalf.

This year, Jill Lustigman selected the Dubin Breast Center of The Tisch Cancer Institute to receive the funding. This is where she received all her treatments and follow-ups; what she loved about it was that everything was under one roof and that the facility gave off a very positive vibe of hope, which she found nurturing.

Located at Mount Sinai Hospital’s main campus on New York City’s Upper East Side, the Dubin Breast Center of The Tisch Cancer Institute provides a “multi-disciplinary, comprehensive approach to breast cancer screening, treatment and survivorship.” Its 15,000-square-foot facility houses a full range of services, including cancer screening and biopsies. Cancer treatment includes surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, wellness, patient and family support services, education, genetic counseling and testing, oncofertility services, access to clinical trials, and survivorship support.

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