Jess Quinn on Fighting Cancer, Instagram and Positivity

Jess Quinn, who lost her leg to cancer, is the campaign ambassador for Wig Wednesday


Jess Quinn is the campaign ambassador for the Child Cancer Foundation's Wig Wednesday. Picture / Supplied.

The Child Cancer Foundation's inaugural Wig Wednesday campaign launches tomorrow — give generously to those brave enough to wear a wacky wig or donate through childcancer.org.nz. 23-year-old Instagram star Jess Quinn, who lost her leg to cancer when she was nine years old, is the campaign ambassador.

Tell us how you found Instagram superstardom.
Six weeks ago I had about 1000 Instagram followers and now I have over 60k. It’s probably contradictory, but social media drives me crazy. I've got friends who I know have actually got deep issues going on. But they pretend they're at the beach or whatever, or they’ve removed every mole from their face. And it’s really starting to rark me up, young girls posing with a bloody duck face or in their bikinis. And it’s simply because they think they have to fit into that cookie cutter mould of perfection, you know. So I just had this idea which I didn’t think would go that far, but I wanted to be really raw on my Instagram.

I guess I wanted to change the idea of how we kind of portray people in advertising. And I had my new running blade which had given me heaps of confidence, so I called my friend [photographer] Jono Parker and we set up a shoot. Things exploded from there. And it’s all been on fitness accounts which is really cool. My biggest fear was that I was going to get put into this disabled model category. Which I'm not against, I love the idea of disabled modelling and models with adversity, I think it’s awesome. But it’s really normalised me and made it easier to reach out to people who are having difficulties just with everyday life, or with small insecurities.

How old were you were you had cancer?
I had an osteosarcoma when I was 9 years old. It was basically bone cancer in my femur. I was balancing on a ball, fell off and fractured my femur. I was rushed to hospital and had rods put in it, trying to fix the break. But it just wouldn’t heal. And that’s when they discovered the osteosarcoma. I had 6 months of chemo trying to beat it but things got pretty bad. I think it was Christmas 2001, literally Christmas Day was a pretty close call, and the risk of it spreading was just way too high, so they amputated and I started to get better right away, although I did another 3 months of chemo just to be sure.

How did that work for your 9-year-old social life?
[Laughs] Surprisingly fine! I was in a really amazing school, a small school. I have been with the same friends since I was five. So I went back to school and fit right back in. My mum went into the school a few times and had talks with all my friends, told them what was going on. I’m really lucky, things [with peers] have never really been a problem. Sticking in the same environment really helped, and I’ve always been really open and positive about it. I think that helps too.

That positivity, does it get tiring?
I think sometimes people maybe don’t realise how much shit I actually go through on a daily basis. I think a lot of people kind of think, 'Oh she had cancer and that was the bad part', but in reality cancer was the easy part. Also, for the last two and a half years I’ve had pretty bad chronic pain. It started out of the blue and has been centralised in my neck which is really frustrating; I haven’t had any issues with my leg and now my neck is the thing stopping my training. They think it’s somewhat posture or trauma-related, somewhat nerve. My nerve endings are hyper sensitive. I've been told not to go to the gym for the last two years, and I love the gym, so I just was like screw it, if I was going to be in pain I'd rather be in pain and be happy. So I’ve been going and I think it’s somewhat helping. Exercise really helps me stay mentally strong. I’ve recently got into running, I’ve set myself a goal to do 10km this year.

Do you find it hard to relate to your peers?
Yeah definitely, that’s been probably my biggest struggle growing up. I’ve always had older friends, or sat with the adults at family functions. And I obviously have a slightly different outlook on life to some people my own age. I just don’t have time for the partying or caring what shoes I'm wearing tonight or all that little catty bulls***. I don’t drink, I don’t party. I used to beat myself up about it and feel like an outcast. It’s only now really that I’m cool with it – if I don’t want go to the party I just don’t go to the party! I've still got really close friends obviously, I'm still friends with the same people. But I've also got another group of friends, Some of them have children and are in their late 30s, some are younger than me, they're about 18. But we’re all on the same page; we’d rather go for a workout in the weekend than go out. 

Tell us about your involvement with the Child Cancer Foundation.
I’ve come on board as an ambassador for Wig Wednesday. I’m really excited to work with them. I have been mentoring kids since within a few years of getting better and I find it works both ways. I love it and get so much out of it. The surgery’s so complex and there’s not many of us so if there’s someone who’s going to need the same amputation I usually get a call. Now there’s a few more of us I don’t get called so often.

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