A grieving mother is asking young women to “check their breasts" after her daughter became one of the youngest people in the UK to die of breast cancer at 25, four years after her initial diagnosis.
When Jenna Wilkins found a lump in her left breast in February 2016, she became one of only around 270 women to be diagnosed annually in their 20s, accounting for just 0.5 per cent of UK cases, according to Cancer Research UK. Her age meant doctors initially suspected it was hormonal.
Her mom Julie Wilkins, shared that it was only when the lump was still there the following month that Jenna was referred for a scan and discovered she had stage two breast cancer.
Jenna at graduation with her parents (PA Real Life/Collect)
Following a mastectomy and chemotherapy, she was briefly free of the disease but it returned and on 15 August, she died peacefully in a hospice with Julie, her dad Steve, and brother Taylor by her side.
Paying tribute to her brave daughter during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, as charity Breast Cancer Now estimates that almost one million women in the UK have missed vital screening appointments due to the pandemic, Julie wants to raise awareness of the disease in younger women.
“Jenna was exactly the kind of person I have always wanted to be and being her mother was an absolute privilege," Julie said.
Honoring her selfless work with children and as an ambassador for the charity "Look Good, Feel Better" which helps boost the physical and emotional wellbeing of people having cancer treatment. Her family have now launched The Jenna Wilkins Foundation, to support young cancer patients and children with special educational needs.
Jenna during chemotherapy (PA Real Life/Collect)
Julie describes the foundation as a fitting legacy for her daughter's “short but extraordinary life."
“It is my life's work and I need Jenna's life to have meant something. Cancer can be a very lonely journey, so we want to offer people going through it somewhere to go and have a pamper – either in a special salon, or at home," she said.
“There's so much about treatment that you don't know until you go through it, and now we sadly have that knowledge, we want to help people."
Jenna (PA Real Life/Collect)
“The second part of the foundation is going to be working with children with special educational needs. Doing this is giving me focus," she added.
Jenna was always keen to help others, according to Julie. She recalls her once asking friends to donate winter coats for London's homeless people.
“Jenna was hugely funny and quite opinionated, even when she was little. As a family, we'd joke that she would be Prime Minister one day," she said.
Jenna as a baby, pictured here with Julie and Taylor (PA Real Life/Collect)
In March 2016, during her final year studying English and Media at Brighton University, doctors found two cancerous tumors in Jenna's left breast and two in her lymph nodes.
“I remember waiting in the hospital with Jenna for the results, when a nurse led us into a different room to the one we'd been in before," Julie said.
“The doctor was sat there waiting and there were tissues and comfy chairs. I should have known then that we were getting bad news – but I didn't."
“He explained that Jenna's test results were shocking, which I thought was an odd word. Then he broke the news and my whole world fell apart," she continued.
“I remember hearing somebody making an awful noise and thinking, 'I wish they'd be quiet, I need to concentrate on what the doctor is saying.' Then I realized it was me."
In May 2016, Jenna began chemotherapy after testing negative for the BRCA gene mutations that can make people more susceptible to breast cancer.
Jenna (PA Real Life/Collect)
She also had two lymph nodes removed and a full mastectomy in October 2016.
“That was incredibly traumatic for her," said Julie. “Her surgeon was fantastic, but he talked about this intricate seven-hour procedure in quite a matter-of-fact way."
Later that month, doctors confirmed Jenna was cancer free.
Jenna skydiving in New Zealand (PA Real Life/Skydive Wanaka)
“There aren't many positives with cancer, but it awakened this bravery in her," Julie said.
“She travelled the world, bungee jumped and threw herself out of a plane. Although her life was short, it was amazing."
Later in 2017, Jenna landed a position at an investment fund. When asked if she had ever overcome a challenge, when she answered, “I wrote my dissertation while having chemo."
Jenna travelling Thailand (PA Real Life/Collect)
“Her boss later told her that her reply had won her the job. She did very well at work and was promoted quickly," she said.
In October 2017, Jenna and her family went to New York, USA, to celebrate “one year all clear."
But just months later, in January 2018, scans at Princess Alexandra Hospital in Harlow revealed that her cancer had returned and spread to her liver and spine, making it incurable.
Jenna and her brother Taylor (PA Real Life/Collect)
“I just kept saying, 'That can't be right. She's only 23,'" recalled Julie.
Jenna's treatment was then transferred to University College Hospital, London, where she was given a targeted drug called palbociclib.
Refusing to give up, she became an ambassador for Look Good, Feel Better, helping other young women with wig styling, applying false lashes and concealing their hair loss, and even decided to devote the rest of her life to education by becoming a teaching assistant.
“It's funny, as Jenna was actually a bit of a rebel when she first started school. She chatty and always getting told off for talking, but she turned it all around and became a real mentor," Julie said.
“Her teachers have told us they've never seen anybody do what she did – before or since. She often worked with children with disabilities and would come home heartbroken for them. She'd say, 'I'm so lucky not to have to deal with the things they face.' All the while she was fighting for her life."
Jenna and Taylor as kids (PA Real Life/Collect)
Sadly, the cancer was too powerful, in January 2020 scans showed regrowth in her liver.
By April, her health was rapidly deteriorating and in May she began intravenous chemotherapy.
“I regret that she ever went through that," she said. “The side effects absolutely floored her."
Jenna and Julie (PA Real Life/Collect)
“She lost weight, she needed blood transfusions and could barely eat because painful sores covering her mouth and tongue. She would have severe nose bleeds, often lasting hours, and her skin would burn," she added.
“Covd-19 restrictions at the hospital also meant she had to do it all alone – although she never asked, 'Why me?'"
When doctors invited Julie to be with Jenna while they explained her latest scan result at the end of May, she knew it meant bad news.
Jenna travelling Thailand (PA Real Life/Collect)
“The cancer had spread to Jenna's brain, making her too unwell for more chemotherapy," she continued.
“When the doctors told her, she said, 'That's fine, I don't want any more.' She asked about other treatments that she'd read about but was told there was nothing more they could do."
“Then, I was taken into a side room and told she could have just two to three weeks left to live. Jenna never wanted to hear her prognosis. She was determined to keep trying and never wanted to accept that she might die."
Jenna as a baby (PA Real Life/Collect)
Like Jenna, her loved ones refused to give up, finding a pioneering treatment in Germany which they hoped would buy her more time.
After they raised $91,400 in just a few days using crowdfunding site GoFundMe, she flew to the German city of Hamburg in June – but she rapidly deteriorated.
“Doctors there said they had never seen a scan of such a damaged liver in a living person. The tumor in her liver had grown so much that her body couldn't cope. She was being sick almost constantly and broke out in a painful rash," Julie recalled.
Just two weeks after arriving, Jenna was so gravely ill that her family had to take her home.
“She would sleep a lot and make worrying noises that frightened me, then she would wake up the next day and seem relatively okay," said Julie.
“We moved her into Taylor's room, as her bedroom was in the loft, which was too difficult for her to reach."
Jenna with Julie and Taylor on her way to Germany (PA Real Life/Collect)
“But we didn't want anything to happen in the house and create awful memories for her brother so, on 14 August, we moved her to a local hospice," she said.
“We told her we needed to go there so she could rest and get strong, but she died the next day, with all of us by her side."
On 29 August, Jenna was laid to rest in a poignant service, after which pink roses were thrown on her coffin.
Jenna (PA Real Life/Collect)
Pandemic restrictions made a traditional wake impossible, so instead, her family held "Jenna's brunch".
“We were only allowed 30 people in the chapel itself, but hundreds more watched the service online, or gathered at a safe social distance outside," said Julie.
“I always knew she was loved but seeing just how many lives she had affected really touched me."
Jenna as a youngster (PA Real Life/Collect)
As the Wilkins family grieved their unfathomable loss, the same condition that had taken Jenna's life was thrust into the public eye when former Girls Aloud singer Sarah Harding took to Twitter in August to announce her own breast cancer diagnosis.
Speaking as the star has revealed she is currently living with her mom, Marie Hardman, who is caring for her while she has treatment.
“I read about Sarah Harding in the news and my heart goes out to her. She'll have to live all this out in the public eye," Julie said.
“But I know she wouldn't want my pity. Jenna was like that, too – she never wanted anybody to feel sorry for her."
“She never wanted the disease to define her. She wasn't a victim – she was a warrior," Julie continued.
“Whenever any of us got upset, she'd say, 'Dry your eyes, we've got this.' People who met her could never believe she was ill, because she was still the life and soul and still thinking of others."
Now, Julie and her family are determined to honor Jenna's legacy by launching her foundation.
Jenna on her graduation day (PA Real Life/Collect)
Showing the same remarkable steel as her daughter.
“We've received hundreds of messages from people who knew and loved Jenna," Julie said.
“Even people who only briefly crossed paths with her have been blown away by how funny and kind she was. She instinctively knew how to read situations and we want her foundation to help others – just like she did."
Jenna and her dad Steve (PA Real Life/Collect)
Dr. Caroline Hoffman, Clinical and Research Director of the charity Breast Cancer Haven, said Jenna's death was “tragic."
“This is a tragic case. The risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer at 21 is extremely small and most cancers at that age are caused by a genetic link. Without that genetic link, the chances of a positive diagnosis become vanishingly small although, sadly, are not impossible," she said.
“In my 27 years amount of years practicing in this field, I've worked with tens of thousands of women diagnosed with breast cancer. Only a handful of these have been in their early 20s."
Jenna on her travels with friends (PA Real Life/Collect)
“At Breast Cancer Haven, and we offer a specialized young women's support group to help them through, what is for many, the toughest time of their lives, and much more to support living well with breast cancer," Dr Hoffman continued.
“It's so important that young women are taught about the risks of breast cancer, about breast awareness, about self-checking, and what to look for. The earlier breast cancer is found and diagnosed, the greater the chances of survival are."