There is absolutely no upside to cancer, but oddly, Nicole Robinson credits her 2014 diagnosis of Stage 2 breast cancer as her genesis in truly finding purpose in life.
“What motivates me…is knowing that God is keeping me and that I have purpose,” Robinson said. “Knowing that he strategically guides me and embraces me and yet has work for me to do. So, while I’m here, well, I’m gonna go with that.”
Robinson is a breast cancer “thriver.” The term, she said, was coined by women who haven’t beaten breast cancer but are “still in the fight.”
Robinson finds herself “still in the fight,” after she was re-diagnosed in 2018, this time with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. This after whirlwind challenges four years prior with aggressive chemo, radiation treatments and lumpectomy surgery to eradicate the cancer cells which had already traveled to her lymph nodes.
Robinson is still trying to discover new ways to positively uplift and impact others who face the challenges she did growing up in poverty or trying to achieve higher education to improve their lives. The “thriver” is currently running in the St. Louis Community College Trustee race next month.
Her opponent is incumbent Pam Ross, who was elected to the STLCC board in 2017.
“I’ve always had a passion for education but my whole personal success story says, ‘if I can do it, any young person in life can also,’” Robinson said, emphasizing her impressive academic, professional and nonprofit career.
“I’m about service and serving, so I’m always looking to give something back.”
Robinson recalled a life of constant movement. She has trouble remembering how many grade schools she attended because “every time the rent went up,” she said her single mom moved to a new location.
Robinson and her four siblings lived at different city locations including the notorious Cabanne Courts to other “impoverished” areas in the county like Jennings, Pagedale and Pine Lawn. Even though she lived in the county, she was allowed, through a “lottery” to be bussed to Central Visual and Performing Arts Magnet High School in the city.
Robinson didn’t go to college after graduating high school. She was pregnant with her daughter at the time and after giving birth she was more concerned with getting a job than a college degree. She enrolled at Hickey College which was specifically designed to offer career-focused courses and learning opportunities so graduates could start work immediately.
With a secretarial certificate from Hickey, Robinson went to work in the banking industry. It didn’t take her long to notice younger people with bachelor’s degrees getting hired at much better salaries with greater advancement potential. Thus, her higher education journey began.
Robinson enrolled in the St. Louis Community College system and earned an associate’s degree. She then received a BS in Management from National Louis University, an MBA from Fontbonne University then graduated from Pepperdine University in California with an EdD in Education & Psychology in Organizational Leadership.
It was at Pepperdine where she received her first cancer diagnosis. She remembers the day like it was yesterday.
“It was Valentine’s Day and time for my annual mammogram,” Robison recollected, adding” “I was called back the next day for a biopsy and after those results came back, my life just shifted.”
Robinson managed to continue and complete classes at Pepperdine even while raising her two children, undergoing what she defined as an “aggressive treatment ritual of “chemo, radiation, lumpectomy surgery… the whole nine yards.”
One particular challenge, Robinson recalled, was the loss of her hair from radiation treatments.
“Having this whole shift in appearance, as a woman…when you look at yourself in the mirror then contending with losing my hair…man, that was traumatic! I wasn’t ready to commit.”
She said that she will never forget the outpouring of support from family and friends, some who traveled to California to be with her during her medical appointments and other female supporters who shaved their heads in solidarity.
Reinforcing the theme of cancer changing her life, after her first treatments in 2014, Robinson founded the“Hatz 4 Hearts” foundation. The non-profit is dedicated to providing supportive services to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. She was inspired by the patients gathered at a cancer clinic she frequented in California.
“It was an open room with people in different phases of their treatment, everyone was losing or had lost their hair,” Robinson recalled. “To me, it was a dark, heavy place and I wanted to make it uplifting. So, the next time I went back, I went back with hats.”
At first Robinson said she was “just trying to give hats” to people but the agency has morphed over the years. Today it presents annual galas and fashion shows featuring models who are cancer survivors and “thrivers.” The galas also recognize medical practitioners and organizations doing outstanding work in the battle against cancer.
Even when her cancer came back in 2018, Robinson said she still found inspiration.
“In some ways, I realized I’m blessed,” she said. “So many of my friends who have been diagnosed with the same thing aren’t here anymore.”
Professionally, Robinson has transitioned from state to federal housing work, spending more than 15 years with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). While still in California, she met Congresswoman Maxine Waters at a political event. After introducing herself, she became a volunteer before eventually being invited to join Waters' staff.
In 2022, Robinson was appointed President of the St. Louis Chapter-National Women’s Political Caucus Training Institute. She now works in the housing industry. That field, she said, fulfills her desire to ensure marginalized people have good, solid comfortable homes.
She’s running as a community college trustee because her life experience has shown her that education impacts “all spectrums” of life, including housing, unemployment, food insecurities, needed medicines and other factors related to poverty.
“Sometimes people in disinvested communities are not even looking at education,” Robinson continued, adding: “They’re worried about having a job…where the next meal is coming from, health challenges and more. I had to contend with all those things and I’m still here to say, ‘If I can do it, you can do.’”
Upbeat, Robinson, the ultimate “thriver” said she feels like time is not a promise to anyone.
“I’ve always been a positive person but it’s like I’m racing against a clock. I feel like this intent, this mandate, this purpose is to make some sort of change while I’m still here.”
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