Jane Doe: A Phoenix Woman's Battle with Breast Cancer Becomes an International Documentary Success
By Niki D’Andrea
Cancer could have killed Jane Fendelman. Instead, it brought her back to life. And her video documentation of her painful treatment and miraculous recovery (which she edited and released as a documentary titled Jane Doe) has brought her accolades -- most recently, a nomination at the International Women’s Film and Television Showcase, taking place next month in Hollywood. Jane Doe is one of only ten films worldwide to be nominated for an award at the showcase.
Fendelman is a longtime Phoenix resident, and a renowned counselor best known for treating ADD/ADHD without drugs and for relationship counseling. She’s appeared as a guest on local radio stations KTAR, KFNX, and KZON, as well as on TV programs like The Pat McMahon Show, Sonoran Living, and as a regular “couples counselor” on Arizona Midday. One of the Fendelman’s mottos as a counselor was “Pain and anger need a witness.”
But when she was diagnosed with grade three breast cancer in 2005 (the most aggressive of three grades of breast cancers) and given a 40% chance of survival, she had no witness. Things had been so bad leading up to the diagnosis that she wanted to die. She’d suffered a miscarriage, and then her husband left her for one of her girlfriends. Shortly thereafter, her father died suddenly. Then came the cancer diagnosis. Her family and friends didn’t want to hear her talk about dying. She had nowhere left to turn. So she turned on a video camera and started documenting what very well could have been the last days of her life.
“I was too overwhelmed and tired to journal. I knew there was a good chance I was going to die, and I wanted to preserve my life and leave something as a service to humanity,” Fendelman says. “The video camera was this silent, objective witness. Talking to the camera was wonderfully healing and made me feel like my life wasn’t in vain.”
Over the course of 18 months -- from her diagnosis, through her chemotherapy, radiation burns, and amazing recovery -- Fendelman shot more than 150 hours of video, which would ultimately be compressed into Jane Doe, which she calls “a real, raw look” at life and death. There are moments when Fendelman stares into the camera with darkness framing her face and just cries. But there are also moments – like her post-treatment victory at a Tango competition – that are exalting.
Jane Fendelman with her dog, Bubba Gump Shrimp.
Pondering the appeal of the film, Fendelman says, “Cancer is so scary to most people, and when they see a story about someone embracing cancer as an experience and a ride to a higher level, it’s inspiring. It reminds people that we’re all going to die and that we can choose how we face our mortality.”
Even today, as Fendelman answers my questions on her cell phone while driving out to Chandler to see a friend who is dying of cancer, she enumerates all the good that came from such a harrowing experience. “Cancer brought me back to life,” she says. “Everything I was too chicken to do before, I did….chemo is just hell. Chemo was me crawling on my hands and knees for a month and a half. I felt if I could do chemo, I could do anything.”
“I tried out for a play while I was still bald,” she continues. “I always wanted to audition for a play, but was too afraid. And I got cast in Harvey with a local production company. I did dance competitions and was winning trophies and ribbons. I had about 15 pounds that I’d been trying to lose for the longest time, and I started weightlifting and lost the weight. I went on Sonoran Living in a bikini at age 48!”
Staring death in the face and coming back with a smile is no easy feat, but Fendelman says it’s been worth it. “I’m also more blunt now, which some people don’t like, but I know I’m going to die and there’s no time to hem and haw. If I love somebody, I tell them. If I’m angry, I tell them. I wish everybody could have cancer,” she says with a laugh.
Fendelman continues to work as a counselor, speaker, and teacher, and is pursuing her dream of opening a healing retreat in Phoenix. While she faces the monetary challenges that come with the realization of such a dream, she hopes to find a gig as a television counselor. “That’s my heart’s desire -- to help more people at once,” she says. “My basic dream is to help millions of people.”
Jane Doe will have its world premiere at the International Women’s Film and Television Showcase in Hollywood on Sunday, December 7. For more information, visit www.janefendelman.com, and check out highlights from the film below: