Q: I graduated from college with a degree in entrepreneurship from a Nigerian institution. Thanks to my course of study, I have...
In 2008, when the T&T Guardian interviewed Omonike Robinson-Pickering, she was still undergoing treatment for stage two breast cancer. Her story was meritous because at 26, her diagnosis could have been considered devastating, but Robinson-Pickering was full of faith and optimism. She was able to encourage others and became an ambassador for cancer survival, although the outcome of two surgeries, six rounds of chemotherapy and 30 radiation sessions was unknown. Now at 32, Robinson-Pickering is officially in remission, and her message for others is more clearly defined. The attitude she maintained throughout her wrestle with cancer - one of trusting implicitly in God, finding something positive in every circumstance, being true to her own inner voice, and staying aware of the lessons each stage of her journey was trying to teach her - was the refining tool. “I feel so blessed by the whole experience,” says Robinson-Pickering, “it is the best thing that has ever happened to me because it changed my perspective so dramatically.”
One of the most obvious lessons for her, she says, is that “God still performs miracles. Maybe not water into wine but small miracles showing how integrated God is.” Robinson-Pickering explains that she ensured that prayer was an integral part of her recovery. “Everything was taken to God in prayer,” she said. She also asked for prayer support from family and friends. Diagnosed in her final year of law school, she prayed for good examination results. Confronted by the insistence by doctors that she have a mastectomy, she prayed that it wouldn’t be necessary. Aware of the possible side effects of chemotherapy, she prayed that the treatment would not make her ill. “I wasn’t sick one day,” she says emphatically, “well actually I vomited once, after the first chemo because I felt like having a burger with fries and I did, which I think made me throw up, but after that, I never threw up again.” She avoided fried foods after treatment and began juicing everyday. Standing her ground with doctors about the mastectomy and graduating from law school with five As and a prize for top marks in one of the exams, however, are not only about the power of prayer for Robinson-Pickering but also convey some of the rich perspectives she gained.
“Everyone said have a mastectomy,” says Robinson-Pickering, “but I wasn’t ready for that.” Tissue removed during the surgery for the growth she had found while showering, had all come back cancerous, and doctors were encouraging removal of the breast rather than further testing on surrounding tissue because they believed that it had very likely already spread. She would also have been unable to have immediate breast reconstruction as her slim figure, the result of eating well and exercising, meant that she did not have enough stomach fat for one. “I had to satisfy myself before going down the road of mastectomy,” she says. Explaining the difficulty of adjusting emotionally to losing a breast, especially in her twenties, she says “and I had nice breasts, perky.” Experiencing her breasts as an extension of her femininity, Robinson-Pickering, who is also not a mother, did not want to later miss out on breastfeeding. After a lot of “to-ing and fro-ing” doctors agreed to a surgery that would test surrounding breast tissue for cancer, before removing her breast. “If they hadn’t agreed, I would have found someone who would have done what I wanted,” she says. Tests came back negative and Robinson-Pickering kept her left breast. “You know your body better than anyone else,” says Robinson-Pickering, “and you know what you can handle emotionally.” Robinson-Pickering appreciated that her primary doctor’s first concern was her health, rather than cosmetics, but she says “I needed him to consider the emotional impact.” When she speaks to women confronted by a similar diagnosis, she advises them to trust themselves and what they feel, and to find a doctor with whom they “feel comfortable, with a good bedside manner, who will not follow the letter but consider the patient’s emotions.”
God helps those who help themselves
With the uncertainty that comes with each stage of being treated for cancer and the actual treatments themselves, Robinson-Pickering, who continued to attend classes at the Hugh Wooding Law School, was very tired and says that “it was very difficult to prepare” for upcoming final exams. She considered differing but didn’t want to lose the support and camaraderie of her classmates or be faced with needing to return to studying after what she knew would be a long journey to recovery. She “wanted to pass” and studied, but admits “I didn’t study that hard.” She already had A’s in the assignment sections of 4 out 5 examinations and this would help offset any under-performance in their associated written examinations. But the fifth examination did not have an assignment attached and the grade would be awarded on a written test paper only. Robinson-Pickering did what she could and left the rest with God. Getting top marks that put her in first place out of over 130 students, in the fifth examination, blew Robinson-Pickering’s mind. “I have read that paper again,” she says, “and there is no way I could answer those questions.” “It was not my doing, it was all God’s doing and it showed me that He will take care of the big things and the small things.”
But she learnt about helping herself too and says Robinson-Pickering, “the most interesting thing for me was learning that because you have a major life event happen it doesn’t mean life stops.” She is still confronted by challenges faced by many—“pressure at work, finding a mate, clothes that don’t fit” but she brings a perspective from living through cancer. There are also some things that others don’t face—she still has to take a range of medications to prevent reoccurrence and is dealing with the effects of induced menopause. This had to be done to save her ovaries from being negatively affected by the treatment. But she says, “I don’t worry about the small things.” Sharing the lesson that “tomorrow isn’t guaranteed,” especially for her with the possibility that the cancer could return, Robinson-Pickering says she also “stopped putting off things.” Feeding her desire to travel the world, she took the opportunity to work with her law firm’s office in Asia, spending nine months in Singapore and eleven months in Hong Kong. “While out there,” she says, “I took vacations whenever I could.” She travelled to 11 other countries, and says “I experienced as much as I could … ate everything I could … attended a Balinese wedding … I have absolutely no regrets.”
Sharing her story
Living her life to the fullest includes her approach to self-expression. Saying that it would be selfish not to share her story, Robinson-Pickering, who first shared her experience with breast cancer on Facebook, by blogging using one of the site’s features called Notes, has also written a book. The book, which was written out of the journal entries she wrote, from diagnosis through treatment, has not yet been named but is currently being edited by a friend. “I wrote about everything,” says Robinson-Pickering, “it kept me sane.” She also shares her story by presenting at events where she can encourage especially younger people diagnosed with cancer (when she was diagnosed there were few support groups for women her age), their family and friends. This also helps her to keep on travelling. Her visit to Trinidad last week for the Cancer Society’s event, Cheers, comes after trips to the Tortola and St Kitts where she has done Outreach work for as long as a week at a time. “I like sharing my story,” she says, “the way people respond and the feedback show me that people find it inspirational.” She admits though that sharing can sometimes be “draining,” especially when she is “exposed to the not so happy endings.” Meeting a woman recently, for whom the cancer had spread all over her body, because fear had prevented her from going to the doctor, Robinson-Pickering says, “made me realise that though I could make light during my own experience, and find the positive, it’s not always the same for others. Reminds me to be grateful.” The most important thing that Robinson-Pickering wants to share though is one of the simplest, but often the hardest one to remember. “Enjoy your life,” she says, “it’s precious. Do those things you really want to do. Don’t worry about the minor or keep harpering on the crap. Live.”