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Massey breast cancer patient moves forward from diagnosis: “Let’s walk.”

Sep 27, 2022

Let's Walk feature image By 2021, Robin's Walk more than doubled in the number of participants.

The world had already been shut down for two months in May 2020 when Robin Williams heard the words that impacted her life even more during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“Invasive lobular carcinoma,” Williams remembered her cancer diagnosis. “It was less than a stage one, about the size of an M&M. I’m a person of faith, so I didn't fall apart. I asked what we needed to do.”

Williams, who was 59-years-old at the time, is legally blind. She had to navigate the early days of her diagnosis at VCU Massey Cancer Center without her family at her side due to COVID restrictions.

At the coaxing of a friend and fellow breast cancer patient, Williams made an appointment at Massey to get a second opinion and ultimately stayed for treatment after meeting members of the clinical care team. Williams leaned on them for support before and after her surgery on July 24, 2020. Her family then showered her with encouragement.

“Most people fall asleep after their surgery, but I came home and had a whole house full of people,” Williams recalled. “They couldn’t come to the hospital, so they welcomed me home. I stayed up with them the whole day.”

The camaraderie that Williams experienced following her breast surgery continued as she began 16 rounds of radiation in September.

“Whenever I felt down, my husband Larry had positive reinforcement,” Williams remembered. “It wasn’t often that I felt down, but when I did, he was there with me through every appointment.”

The experience sparked an idea to observe National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October with a family gathering.

Robin Williams (center) was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2020.

“Let’s walk,” Williams said. “Let’s get some cousins together. We can get matching t-shirts and just walk and talk.”

The first Robin’s Walk happened on October 24, 2020 at Osborne Park in Henrico county.

“We walked, but the walk was secondary. It was really about the fellowship,” Williams described. “We had games, food, listened to music and goodies. We walked, but it was important just to be with everybody.”

For 2021, the event grew and included Freda Wilkins, M.S.W., M. Div., a Massey social worker who Williams met early in her cancer journey.

“There are so many people who see cancer as a limitation and say, ‘I just can’t,’” said Wilkins. “But this is a woman who has visual impairment and is in active treatment for breast cancer who says, ‘I can, and I will,’ and she makes it happen. It’s her heart. You can tell.”

It is the same independence, resilience and tenacity Williams had even as a child, according to her three siblings.

"She has never let anything or anyone hinder her or cause her to change her course of direction,” Sheila Charity Spratley, Penny Johnson and Vincent Charity, Sr., said in a joint statement. “She has shown us through faith, love and positive attitude, all things are possible.  And to this, we hold her as a true test of survival. She is truly the glue that holds our family together in good times and bad times. We thank God for her each and every day!"

The 3rd annual Robin’s Walk will take place on Sunday, October 23, 2022 at Osborne Park from 1:00 - 5:00 p.m.

Wilkins will be on hand with Massey educational materials and to discuss screening options.

“Freda emphasizes getting your mammograms. That is so important. The tumor I had, all the doctors told me I would have never felt it on my own until it was big. I had a 3D mammogram [in May 2020], and I’m so thankful because you never know. Maybe they wouldn’t have been able to catch it so early.”

The one-mile walk will also include speakers sharing their personal cancer experiences.

Lets walk news article The first annual Robin's Walk took place on October 24, 2020.

“People are just so in awe of how people come through breast cancer,” Williams said about the importance of talking about a diagnosis. “They’ll tell their stories, and we’ll have food and music. My friend who got me to Massey will be there talking about her brachytherapy. My sister has a bullhorn. As we walk, she’ll say, ‘I say cancer, you say free,’ and other things like that.”

Williams will take the breast cancer drug Exemestane for the next few years while scheduling appointments with her care team. Otherwise, Williams says she feels “good.”

She is thankful for having fostered a connection to Massey.

“When I spoke at the walk last year, I said I have my four f’s: faith, family, friends and Freda,” Williams recounted. “As long as I have strength, I’m planning to do this walk every year.”

Wilkins said Robin’s Walk allows Williams to find the greater good of her cancer diagnosis, a stage of grief commonly known as meaning making.

“Most of us are familiar with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, M.D.’s, five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Every cancer patient moves back and forth through the grieving process; it is a fluid process, not a straight line,” explained Wilkins. “David Kessler, an associate of Kübler-Ross, asserts that there is a sixth stage — meaning making —  which aligns with the idea of paying it forward. The cancer survivor begins to accept the diagnosis, the treatment, the side effects and everything that goes along with it and then uses that experience to put something good out into the world.”

The 2022 Robin’s Walk aims to raise money to provide Massey patients with transportation, utility bill assistance and other daily needs.

Written by: Amy Lacey

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