Cancer, chronic illness motivates Scottsdale mom into medicine

Jennifer Mattox. (Submitted photo)

Jennifer Mattox. (Submitted photo)

Ten years ago, life for Scottsdale mother-of-two Jennifer Mattox was humming along, albeit very busy.

“That was, until I turned 30, and our world was turned upside down,” says Ms. Mattox. “I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.”

According to the National Cancer Institute, there are about 56,000 new cases of thyroid cancer in the United States each year; with women getting diagnosed three times as often as men.

“All of the sudden, words like “tumor,’ ‘radiation’ and ‘surgery’ were all too commonplace at home,” says Ms. Mattox. “But even as I recovered, something else just didn’t feel quite right.”

Over the next three years, though she would reach remission in her cancer journey, she kept falling ill with a litany of seemingly unrelated symptoms from dry eyes to joint pain and swollen salivary glands.

“It wasn’t until 2009 when we uncovered the issue — and it wasn’t my cancer returning,” she says. “I was diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome.”

Sjögren’s (pronounced SHOW-grins) syndrome is a disorder of the immune system identified by its two most common symptoms — dry eyes and a dry mouth. According to the Mayo Clinic, it often accompanies other immune system disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus. In Sjögren’s syndrome, white blood cells attack the mucous membranes and moisture-secreting glands of the eyes and mouth — resulting in decreased production of tears and saliva.

It is a systemic condition, meaning it can eventually affect all body systems. As many as four million Americans live with the condition.

Although one can develop Sjögren’s syndrome at any age, most people are older than 40 at the time of diagnosis — Mattox was in her mid-30s. Some people with Sjögren’s syndrome also experience one or more of the following:

  • Joint pain, swelling and stiffness
  • Swollen salivary glands
  • Skin rashes or dry skin
  • Persistent dry cough
  • Prolonged — sometimes severe — fatigue

“Like with thyroid cancer, the condition is much more common in women — I’ve learned from my doctors that as many as 90 percent of those diagnosed are women, in fact,” says Ms. Mattox. “While researchers have yet to determine the cause of the condition and there is not yet a cure, treatment focuses on relieving the symptoms.”

Buoyed by finally having a diagnosis, Ms. Mattox was motivated to action.

“As I began to take better — and more proactive — care of myself, I found myself inspired to take care of others,” says Ms. Mattox.

Eventually, this inspiration brought Mattox to Carrington College, a career-based technical school that offers a wide range of programs that prepare students for the medical, dental and veterinary fields.

“I wanted to go into medicine — starting by earning a certificate in medical assisting,” says Ms. Mattox, who maintains a 4.0 GPA in the program and is currently taking part in both classroom and hands-on learning activities focused on everything from recording vital signs and conducting diagnostic tests to drawing blood samples and removing sutures.

“We get direction just as we would in the field, under a trained faculty member, and learn everything from routine patient procedures to the best ways to assist physicians with in-office surgical procedures.”

In addition to her work toward her medical assisting certificate, which she will earn on April 29, Ms. Mattox’s desire to help others extends outside of the classroom as well.

“At Carrington, the students, faculty and staff are empowered to take an active role in volunteerism, fundraising and other outreach opportunities that help to make the local community a better place to work and live,” says Mattox. “Most recently our campus delivered more than 520 homemade heart-shaped pillows to Phoenix Children’s Hospital through our Heart Pillow Project.”

As part of the program, now in its eighth year, the pillows are cut, sewn, stuffed and stitched by students, staff and faculty to donate to the children at PCH. To bring a smile to each child’s face, they also attach homemade cards of encouragement to each pillow.

“I am also passionate about volunteering and fundraising for the Sjögren’s Syndrome Foundation,” says Ms. Mattox, who just volunteered for the organization’s Walk-About event at Paradise Valley Mall recently and raised more than $12,000. “My condition does not rule my life — it propels me to work just that much harder every single day.”

For more information about Sjögren’s syndrome, visit www.sjogrens.org.

Editor’s note: Ms. Bailin Batz is a public relations professional at Phoenix-based HMA Public Relations

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