Survivor Since: 2016

Diagnosis: Breast Cancer

Missouri Cancer Care Team:

Chemotherapy Care Team:

  • Ashley Johnson, RN
  • Amy Boyle, RN
  • Danielle Kleithermes, RN
  • Erin Swift, RN

Treatment: Chemotherapy

Jill Cox, Senior Vice President of Commercial Lending at Central Bank of Boone County, is a busy, professional woman with a kind smile, warm eyes and brown hair styled in a short pixie cut, polished and confident. A year ago, however, she looked a little different — with long, thick hair — and she looked at life differently, too. In 2016, the mother of three, grandmother of four was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I was perfectly healthy,” Cox says about her life before the diagnosis. “I don’t get sick.”

There was no history of breast cancer in her family, but she hadn’t had a mammogram in two years, so during the summer, she had scheduled a routine mammogram. Her doctor called the next day to tell her they saw an “area of concern” that needed further evaluation. After a needle biopsy, Cox received news she had a very early form of breast cancer.

Jill Cox and Family

That area of concern picked up by the 3-D mammogram was a group of microcalcifications, small calcium deposits in the soft tissue of the breast that are often benign. In Cox’s case, however, they were malignant — stage zero triple negative breast cancer, often very aggressive and difficult to treat.

“I never would have felt them,” she says, marveling at their small size and how difficult they are to detect.

A friend counseled her to see Dr. Liana Makarian at Missouri Cancer Associates (MCA).

“Dr. Makarian was great,” Cox says. “Caring and direct, which I like.” Under Dr. Makarian’s care, in September 2016, Cox began a four-month stint of aggressive chemotherapy, with her husband, Art, by her side and supported by what she calls “an army of great people,” family, friends and co-workers.

‘You either crawl in a hole or move forward’

Chemo wasn’t easy. Cox tried to maintain a semblance of life as she knew it, continuing to work and trying to be there for her family. Her youngest son, Carter, 21, was studying and playing soccer at Columbia College. Her oldest son, Jordan, 30, and his wife, Ashley, live in Columbia with their four sons, and her middle son, Taylor, 25, lives and works in Oklahoma City.

“It was so hard not knowing how you will react to the treatment,” she says. “Would I be able to go to Carter’s soccer game? Would I be able to play with my grandkids?” On Wednesdays, with Art by her side every time, she went to chemo at MCA, where she felt blessed to be in the infusion room with the other patients.

“We were there to fight something together,” she says. On Thursdays, she worked, and on Fridays, she worked half days and slept half days to recover from the treatment. Many at the bank knew what she was going through, but several of her co-workers and customers didn’t.

“I tried to get through (the treatment) without bringing it to work,” she says. “I didn’t want to upset the workplace with what I was going through personally.”One of the hardest parts, she says, was not knowing her future.

“I am very much a control person,” Cox admits. “I think God was sending me a message. He’s in control, and I have to give it over to him.”

“Facing adversity, you either crawl in a hole or move forward,” she adds. For Cox, moving forward meant facing one of her biggest fears: losing her hair. Ever since she was a little girl, she’d had long, thick, flowing hair.

“I knew (losing my hair) was not important,” Cox says. “But it was important. Hair is such a defining thing for women.”In the midst of her treatment battle, her long hair started falling out in fistfuls.

“Are there bald spots?” she remembers asking Art.

“No,” he answered, but she watched more and more hair fall out. Alone, she took scissors and chopped her hair to inches from her scalp, then put on her chemo cap.

“I needed to take control of something by myself,” she remembers. “I felt empowered. I went to chemo and thought, ‘It’s on.’” Despite her determination, without her long hair, she says she didn’t feel like herself: “I would look in the mirror and think, ‘Where have I gone?’”

She chose a wig the same color and length of her long hair and wore it to work every day.

‘The simple things are the most important’

For Cox, support from her medical team at MCA helped her through the chemo treatment.

“Dr. Makarian gave great advice — what she knew worked well,” Cox says. “It made me more comfortable going in and knowing she would be there.”

Jill Cox with FamilyOverwhelmed by the outpouring of care and love she received, Cox says some of the support she most appreciated was simple but consistent. Close-knit, her large extended and immediate family stood by her, and she says generosity popped up outside of her family circle that surprised her, from the nearby friend who texted every day to a friend of her sister’s in Wisconsin — someone she had never met — who sent long texts of support and guidance when she needed it, even in the middle of the night.

Cox advises others going through chemo to not be afraid to reach out and let others be there for you, to take care of you.

“I’ve never really done that before — said, ‘I can’t,’” Cox says. “I don’t like to ask for help. But I had to do that, and it’s OK. I realized that it helps the person on the other side.” Cox’s chemo concluded in December, and at Christmas, surrounded by loved ones, she says everyone was so excited for her.

“I was scared out of my mind,” she says, comparing her reaction to theirs. The treatment was over, but the worry wasn’t. She continued doing what she has been doing ever since she got the call that started the journey — taking one day at a time. Today she says looking back at her cancer fight is a surreal experience.

“Did I go through that? Did I do that?” she asks herself. She wakes up every day grateful for the life she continues to lead, and she reminds herself to be present in every moment, appreciative of the time she gets to spend her husband, kids, and grandkids.

“The simple things are the important things,” she says. That philosophy of focusing on the simple things echoes throughout her journey. When the women at the bank asked what they could do for her, Cox’s answer was clear.

“I told them — get a mammogram.” Cox is living proof of the importance of early detection and treatment.