By Amy Gaw | Photography by Lori Douglas
October 16, 2020
For the first time in her life, Jody Mikul Mullis, is living by herself. Her children are grown, and her creative projects are minimal. She says it was hard initially; now, she relishes the solitude. This is not a retirement dream come true, though, nor is it because of the pandemic.
Mullis, 53, has been battling ovarian cancer and recently learned she also carries the breast cancer gene mutation, BRAC1. She has endured chemotherapy and decided to pursue a prophylactic (preventative) mastectomy to reduce the risk of contracting breast cancer.
Her fight to stay alive – and healthy – has become a full-time job.
Mullis is a familiar face on the Outer Banks and has a legion of admirers. She has volunteered around the beach for decades and is also an artist. She drives a small, hot-pink work truck she calls Truckie, and her personal style is eye-catching: part construction work-er and part Vargas pinup. She wears sassy, pink, cat’s eyeglasses, and her hair – when she has it – is very light blonde. Her smile is hypnotizing, and her kindness is easily discerned.
She says that sharing her cancer story is therapeutic but may also help others. “I cannot stress enough the importance of getting checked regularly,” she says.
In 2018, Mullis was screened for ovarian cancer and tested negative. Her mother, Helen Keefe Mullis, died from ovarian cancer two decades prior, but having beat late stage melanoma in 2002, Mullis thought maybe she’d already been dealt her cancer card.
Eight months after that negative screening, however, Mullis was diagnosed with high-grade serous ovarian cancer, a late stage, aggressive form of the disease. She received demanding chemotherapy treatments until September 2019. Her body respond-ed well, and she and her medical team have switched their focus to her double mastectomy. Mullis has already completed breast reduction surgeries as part of the multi-step, areola sparing procedures.
“I am making a plan for my final surgery,” says Mullis, “My immune system is compromised. My doctors told me no more surgeries if the cancer comes back.”
Most days she feels OK, she says, but admits to being tired, adding that staying positive can be a challenge. As part of her mental health plan, Mullis posts on social media daily to a bevy of loyal followers. She volunteers for Nest, an endangered sea turtle protection group, and shares photos of beach sunrises and baby turtles, as well as inspirational messages.
Katy Shultz, a friend, says Mullis’ posts are vital to her and that they share grace. “Seeing her pictures with my morning coffee starts my day off in the right direction,” says Shultz, “Baby turtles mean there’s hope in this world and the cycle of life is truly a wonder.”
Mullis has a devoted following of admirers off-line, too, many who know her just by sight. Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Mullis moved with her family to the Outer Banks in the early 1980s. She graduated from Manteo High School in 1985.
She worked at Papagayos Restaurant in the ‘80s, and took care of other people’s babies in her home when her own children were little. More recently, she worked at Bonzer Shack, a Kill Devil Hills eatery, and she has long been licensed to apply permanent makeup.
But the bulk of her career was spent working for a nonprofit. For two decades, Mullis performed a variety of duties for the Hotline thrift stores and managed the nonprofit’s creative re-use shop, Endless Possibilities, which she calls one of her “great prides.”
“I knew when it was time to go, though,” says Mullis with a wink. “A lady always knows when it is time to leave.”
Many have been on the receiving end of Mullis’ generosity. Genevieve Mizzell Clark, a longtime friend who now lives in Virginia, says Mullis lent her Miata convertible when Clark was in a jam. During a heavy snowstorm, the roof of the car caved in and the vehicle was severely damaged.
“I’ve always felt bad about that Miata,” says Clark. “But Jody said that when you loan something out, you can’t expect to get it back in the same condition. She is so incredibly generous.”
Mullis learned about textiles and fiber arts as a child and when the pandemic began, she started making masks. She has made over 1,400 and gifted them to friends and family. Helping others helped Mullis not to focus on her own issues, she says.
“I love her masks,” says her friend Agatha Knab of Roanoke Island. “She is so talented.”
Mullis’ life goals these days are simple, and abundance is key. Do right by others. Live life like it is the last day. Go to sleep with a clean conscience. She is grateful for the chance to have the time to work on, what she calls, “flying right.”
“I had a crummy childhood,” says Mullis. Her parents were artists and activists and they moved frequently. Her father, Jon Charles Mullis, was a musician who found work as he could. Her mother marched in Selma and was disowned by her parents for doing so. Things were complicated; family possessions were scarce.
“I made a lot of mistakes in my life,” Mullis says. “I also learned and grew and gave birth to three beautiful girls. My daughters are incredibly good humans.”
Her daughters, Dixie Mullis, 32, Hannah Sloat, 30, and Casey Sloat, 28, were all tested for the BRAC1 gene. Two tested positive, one tested negative. All the women live on the Outer Banks and they see their mom, and each other, often. Casey Sloat and her husband, Chris McDonald, have a baby, Parks Thomas McDonald, 2, who calls his grandmother, “JhoJho.”
“He says it with a little singsong voice and a French accent,” says Mullis. “He is super fun. He takes the (crap) of the world and makes things better.”
Mullis says her life is rich and she is full of gratitude for the experiences she has had, whatever else may come.
“If it is time for me to go, I am OK with that,” she says. “I have had such a tremendous life. I feel satisfied.”