Jenny Conlee battles back from breast cancer

For Jenny Conlee, 2011 was a dizzying year. The Decemberists, the folk-country band where Conlee plays keyboard, saw its latest album debut at No. 1. The band was booked for “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” And, thanks to a quirky turn on the cult comedy show “Portlandia,” Conlee’s profile had grown beyond the confines of indie music.

Then came a “bolt out of the blue,” as band front man Colin Meloy put it. Conlee, then 39, learned she had breast cancer.

“It’s weird because my sister had it,” says Conlee, who lives in Portland’s Brooklyn neighborhood with her husband, drummer Steve Drizos. “Her getting it was more shocking than me getting it.”

Previously, Conlee had no reason to think she or her sisters were at high risk for breast cancer. Yet a harmful gene mutation had traveled from her father’s largely male side of the family and remained undetected until her older sister, an archaeologist in Texas, was diagnosed in January 2011.

Three months later, a mammogram revealed a mass in Conlee’s breast – stage III breast cancer. Suddenly, she was thrust into a different kind of chaos. She pulled out of the summer festivals tour, and the band cancelled its appearance on “The Tonight Show.” While fans offered encouragement and support, Conlee weighed her options.

Like her sisters, she carries the BRCA2 gene mutation, which leads to breast cancer for nearly half the women who inherit it and ovarian cancer in up to 17 percent of women. This mutation brings slightly better odds than BRCA1 (up to 65 percent of women, as well as some men, with BRCA1 mutation will develop breast cancer). 

Had she not inherited BRCA2, Conlee might have opted for the more conservative lumpectomy, but that wouldn’t have reduced her higher risk for developing a second cancer. So after some counseling from cancer experts, Conlee chose to have both breasts and ovaries removed at Providence Portland Medical Center. “Just to be safe,” she says. “I might have done something different if I didn’t have BRCA2.”
The aggressive treatment and rounds of chemotherapy tested Conlee’s endurance and her spirit. She was physically wiped out and scared.

“I was very afraid of death,” she says. “I had to get around that to protect myself.”

But by the end of summer, she was healed enough from surgery that she could strap on her accordion and rejoin The Decemberists on the last leg of its summer tour. After recording an album with Black Prairie, an acoustic side band featuring most of the Decemberists except for Meloy, Conlee was able to jump back on her rising career. In March of this year, Black Prairie performed on “The Tonight Show.”
Two years after her surgery, there is no evidence of cancer in Conlee’s body. She’s turned her experience into advocacy, making a catchy accordion-rap YouTube video about cancer, and selling Team Jenny buttons and T-shirts online to support breast cancer awareness.

“I’m here for a reason,” she says. “And while I’m here, I want to be helpful.”