Her Parents Died of Cancer. She Fought Back.

Nan Jenkins shares how she became a health advocate and managing her own multiple myeloma diagnosis

Health Writer
Nan Jenkins

When Nan Jenkins was a young woman, both her parents died of cancer within 18 months of each other. The shock could have paralyzed her; instead, it mobilized her. She found a path forward by volunteering with the American Cancer Society. Jenkins, 54, has now been working with the American Cancer Society for almost 30 years. Here she talks with HealthCentral about finding hope after heartbreak, becoming a Relay For Life superhero, and coming to terms with her own multiple myeloma diagnosis.

Nan Jenkins wedding day.
Nan Jenkins

HealthCentral (HC): Nan, can you tell me a little about yourself?

Nan Jenkins: I live in a suburb just south of Atlanta. I grew up here. My husband was in the Navy, so we moved around a little bit, but then came back here in 1995 and have been living here ever since. I work for a children’s home, raising money for children in DFCS [Department of Family and Children Services] custody. I have a heart for nonprofit, so I enjoy my job.

HealthCentral (HC): Can you talk about your parents and their cancer struggle?

Nan Jenkins: When I was in my early twenties, my dad was diagnosed with cancer, and then my mom. My dad had lung cancer — he was a lifetime smoker, so we think that probably had a lot to do with that. My mom had an inoperable brain tumor. My dad lived nine months after his diagnosis and my mom lived six months. That was a difficult time.

I learned early on about volunteering through different things I was involved with in high school. I just wanted to give back and that’s when I found the American Cancer Society. I began volunteering soon after my mom passed, in 1989.

Nan Jenkins with husband and son
Nan Jenkins
I hate to say it, but I do say that if you’re going to have cancer, this is a positive time to have it because so many strides are being made.

HC: Relay for Life is a big thing for you, right?

Nan Jenkins: In 1992, I believe, I helped to start the first Relay for Life that took place in Virginia Beach. I have been doing Relay for Life ever since. Through Relay, people who are surviving cancer remember those who they’ve lost and then, through the funds raised, they can fight back with research and other programs offered by the American Cancer Society.

Most Relays are done in a community setting or a city setting. I know personally here in our county, we have lots of school teams, church teams. The teams can be however big you want them to be and everybody just comes together to raise money and awareness.

As for the event itself, sometimes it’s six hours, sometimes it’s 12, sometimes it’s 24. It just really depends on the community. People are on a track and at least one person from the team is asked to be on the track at all times, with the thought that cancer never stops, cancer never sleeps. So it’s a vigil of sorts. A lot of people like to run or walk but we’ve had people skateboard. It’s really however you want to do it.

HC: What happened when you got your own cancer diagnosis?

Nan Jenkins: It was kind of ironic, because I thought I knew everything about cancer but it still took me by surprise. It’s been almost three years now [since the diagnosis]. I was just having some routine tests done and, after lots of other tests, they discovered that I have a rare form of cancer called multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow. Tom Brokaw has the same type of cancer. Geraldine Ferraro had this cancer. Matt Damon’s father recently passed away with this type of cancer.

The very first place I went to find out more information about my type of cancer was cancer.org, which is the website for the American Cancer Society, because they have the latest and greatest and all that. They can even plug you into other places where you can go and look.

I responded to the treatment and so I’m doing well, but I still want to keep getting the message out there and keep plugging every day for research, services, and all those kinds of things. It’s very important.

HC: When you compare today’s cancer treatments to the ones available to your parents, do you feel optimistic?

Nan Jenkins: Well, 13 years ago, my brother was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer and he is alive and well today. He is a big statistic. But then, unfortunately, his son — my nephew — passed away a week before Thanksgiving this past year with another very rare form of cancer. There’s no rhyme or reason to it.

I do know that great strides are being made. Even in the time since I was diagnosed, there are three new drugs on the market for my particular kind of cancer. Luckily, I responded well to the original one. My mom went through a lot of radiation. My dad went through a lot of chemotherapy in the drip, you know, sitting there for hours. There are still a lot of patients going through that particular kind today, but I was able to treat mine with a chemotherapy pill that’s very strong.

But what huge strides in that amount of time!

Also, I’ve heard so many instances over the years where a researcher was studying something for one type of cancer and it did not work. However, when the researcher tried the drug on patients with a different type of cancer, they responded to it.

I hate to say it, but I do say that if you’re going to have cancer, this is a positive time to have it because so many strides are being made.

Interview has been condensed and edited.