Setting An Example of Enduring Support

Cheryl Jernigan

April 26, 2019

Cheryl and Jeff Jernigan show commitment to healthcare in this region.

Few people have supported The University of Kansas Health System as long, as strongly or as completely as Cheryl and Jeff Jernigan. And by making a planned gift to Turning Point and the health system, they have ensured their support will continue uninterrupted far into the future.

Jeff, from Council Grove, Kansas, and Cheryl, from Junction City, married in 1973 and settled in Topeka. Jeff established a career as a successful banker while Cheryl, with a certified public accountant background, made her way from being a CPA to healthcare finance and policy to hospital association leadership to being a leader in cancer research advocacy.

The couple moved to Kansas City in 1986 when Cheryl left her position as a senior vice president of the Kansas Hospital Association to become the Kansas City Area Hospital Association's president and chief executive officer. In that role, she represented hospitals in the region as a spokesperson, advocate and policymaker for more than a decade. "I became passionate about working with health policy, regulations and governmental advocacy to make things better for hospitals and the patients they serve," she says.

Through the '80s and '90s, to say there were few female senior executives in healthcare was an understatement. "We gathered a few women in the area and developed an informal group. We called ourselves by a tough, off-color name," she says with her frequent, effervescent laugh.

Then in 1996, Cheryl was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Passion becomes even more personal

When she was diagnosed, Cheryl was otherwise healthy. A self-proclaimed "geek when it comes to learning and research," she sought as much knowledge as she could in a non-internet age. "I became an advocate for myself, my health and my care," she says. "I'm a health nut. I asked myself, 'How did this happen?' and, 'What can I do so it won't happen again?'"

During this time, Cheryl signed up for a class to learn mind-body techniques taught by Moira Mulhern, PhD. "I met Moira when Turning Point was a glimmer in her eye and a passion in her heart," she says. Once Mulhern formed Turning Point, Cheryl served on the founding board and later was chair. Jeff served on the board after Cheryl's term was up, including serving as board chair.

"Turning Point empowers patients and their families through support, educational classes and providing ways for them to regain their equilibrium and balance after their life boats have been severely rocked," says Cheryl.

Unfortunately, the Jernigans' life boats were rocked yet again.

Another cancer diagnosis

After a routine physical exam in 2005, Jeff learned his prostate-specific antigen (PSA) numbers were growing too quickly. He followed his doctor's recommendation to take antibiotics. When his PSA numbers hadn't dropped weeks later, he had a biopsy.

Jeff had an aggressive form of prostate cancer. After radiation and hormone therapy, he was in remission. Two years later, the cancer returned and had begun to metastasize, which means it spread to other parts of his body. Metastatic cancers largely are still incurable, resulting in lifelong treatment. Jeff sought treatment from the researcher-clinicians at The University of Kansas Cancer Center. Fortunately, various oral medications managed the cancer's spread for many years until 2016, when more aggressive treatments had to be pursued.

Meantime, in 2012, Jeff was diagnosed with HPV tonsil cancer. Fortunately, the leading-edge treatment he received at The University of Kansas Cancer Center knocked that cancer down and it never returned.

He became a living example and spokesperson for the cancer center on the critical importance of anti-HPV cancer vaccines for young boys and girls.

During this time, Cheryl ramped up her cancer and research advocacy on the regional and national levels. She was a charter board member of Susan G. Komen Greater Kansas City, and most recently served as a member of the national Komen's Scientific Advisory Board.

She's an advocate member of the Cancer Prevention and Epidemiology Committee for SWOG, a worldwide network of researchers who design and conduct cancer clinical trials. She also is one of the founders and lead patient advocate for The University of Kansas Cancer Center's PIVOT initiative (Patient and Investigator Voices Organizing Together).

Cheryl is a past chair and lifetime member of the Advancement Board for The University of Kansas Health System and University of Kansas Medical Center. She serves on several key committees or advisory boards for both organizations and works with a number of researchers as part of the research project's team.

After 12 years of living with metastatic prostate cancer, Jeff died in January 2018. "I started grieving the day he was diagnosed," Cheryl says. "After 47 years, what I miss most is our everyday interactions, love and mutual support. He was my best cheerleader and compassionate critic."

Honoring Jeff

Initially, it was Jeff's idea to consider planned giving. In addition to Turning Point, they decided to add funding for nurse navigation and metastatic cancer research. "Metastatic cancer is what kills people. And we believe nurse navigators are true angels on Earth for the patients they serve," says Cheryl.

The process of updating their will was quick and easy. "Jeff was so excited about our gift! He thought it was 'pretty cool.' In retrospect, I am so thankful we created this legacy before he even seriously contemplated his death. We both gained an immense sense of joy from creating it."

With so much of her life affected by cancer, how does Cheryl continue her tireless work as a research advocate? "Believe me, I get so tired of cancer," she says. "But my 'true norths' for why I do this are Jeff and other dear friends slammed by cancer's devastation. When I think of them, I know I must do everything I can to put an end to the death and suffering from this disease."

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