She Survived Breast Cancer. Now She’s Advocating for Others.
Ashlee Payne Jenkins is a go-getter.
She always has been, no matter where life has taken her. When she sets her sights on something, she goes for it. It’s a mentality that has allowed her to find success as a model, a speech pathologist and an actor. It’s also the mentality that kicked in when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 45.
Jenkins recalls feeling pragmatic when she heard the news.
“I thought, ‘OK, what do we have to do? Let’s get this done. I want the cancer gone.’”
The nurse navigator at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center walked her through what her next few months would look like. Chemotherapy, a lumpectomy and radiation were all on the docket.
It was a fast-growing tumor, one that had progressed to stage 2 in the 12 months since Jenkins’ last clear mammogram. But there was good news: The cancer was also treatable.
Jenkins put on a brave face, but the diagnosis was terrifying. Dr. Judith Hopkins, Jenkins’ oncologist, was steadfast, telling her over and over again: “You’re going to be OK.” These words became her mantra for everything that would come next.
Life Before Breast Cancer
Born in West Virginia and raised in Florida, Jenkins began her acting career later in life, according to Hollywood standards. She was in her mid-20s when she started taking classes.
She decided to head to Los Angeles to follow her dreams of becoming a professional actor and began working in the film and television industry.
Soon after, she met her husband, actor Burgess Jenkins, and the couple eventually found their way back to North Carolina to tap into the Southeastern entertainment market and be closer to family.
They were happy to land in Winston-Salem, not far from both of their families. Things were settling in for their family, until Jenkins received the abnormal results from her annual mammogram.
Jenkins had been going for regular mammograms since she was 35. Her family history of breast cancer was notable enough to suggest yearly examinations would be important. Her own diagnosis came 10 years after her first exam.
Jenkins’ diagnosis wouldn’t be the first time she and her husband faced a health challenge. Her husband had recovered from testicular cancer three years prior.
“We had a running joke in our family that we were the healthiest unhealthy people — young, well and diagnosed with cancer,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins went through 12 rounds of chemotherapy, and the experience was intense. She knew what to expect: Hair loss, a weakened immune system, exhaustion — it all happened. But Jenkins pushed through. She moved her body as much as she was able, and she leaned on her support system.
“The doctors, nurses, family and friends who were by my side during treatment were relentless. They prayed with me. They brought me doughnuts. There was never a time when I felt left alone,” she said.
She had hope — and she was right to. The chemotherapy worked.
But with the next steps and radiation treatment came a different emotional response.
“I started getting angry when we started radiation treatments. I would look around the room and see countless women who were sick. It was heartbreaking. All I could think was, ‘Why? Why is there so much cancer?’” she said.
Jenkins heard from women who were in dire situations that stretched beyond their already devastating cancer diagnoses.
“I talked to women who had to choose between scheduling follow-up appointments and getting their kids Christmas gifts. I met a woman who had to lose her house and live out of her car in order to afford treatment,” she said.
These women needed resources, and, as Jenkins recovered, she knew she would spend the rest of her life sharing her story and advocating for access to breast health services for all.
Life after cancer
Recovery was something to rejoice in, but it was still an odd experience for Jenkins.
“It was weird not going to my doctor’s appointments every day. I missed connecting with people who were on a similar walk,” she said.
Jenkins followed that tug toward community and decided to build one herself. She created a Facebook page for women to come together and share their experiences in lifestyle and wellness, surviving cancer, relationships — you name it, they discuss it.
She also takes every opportunity to help others find ways to support those in need of care. For those with family, friends or neighbors who are battling with a breast cancer diagnosis, Jenkins said it’s the little things that help patients through the dark days of treatment. Send “thinking of you” texts, drop flowers at their house or take gas cards to your local breast clinic.
Jenkins also advocates giving the gift of a mammogram because she knows mammograms saved her life.
“Early detection is essential. We have to help more women have access to exams,” Jenkins said.