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.
Mammograms can detect breast cancer when it's more treatable.
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
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
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
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
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.
Give the gift of a mammogram
You can give the gift of a mammogram by donating to Novant Health Foundation's breast health campaign.
Every dollar makes and impact for women across our community.