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Women's Week Spotlight: Cancer won't stop activist Agnes Lomu-Penitani

Posted at 2:39 PM, Mar 05, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-05 16:39:33-05

For the week leading up to International Women's Day on March 8, 2020, we're spotlighting amazing women and women-run organizations to show that talent isn't gender-specific.

Today, we introduce you to Agnes Lomu-Penitani. Not only does she consider her stage 4 colon cancer a blessing, but she also cared for (and dealt with the loss of) her parents, while also raising children (one of whom has a rare genetic disorder and needs special care), working full-time, AND helping to run the Pacific Island Business Alliance, which she co-founded.

Here are some of the amazing things Agnes has done and continues to do in our community, in her own words:

"I have an 8-year-old son who has a genetic disorder called RERE (Arginine-glutamic acid dipeptide repeats). This is very rare because we tried all genetic testing possible and this was a trial and found 3 years ago that he was the 11th child that the doctors know of in the United States and Netherlands that have been diagnosed. I also cared for my ALS father and mother who passed away and 3.5 months later learn that I have stage 4 colon cancer and metastasizes to my liver and lungs. The tumors in my lung is inoperable due to the size.

My story is summed up is: Not allowing cancer to define who I am. Most people say to 'F' Cancer or cancer sucks! I say Praise God for cancer! It is all how we respond to trials and storms in life. There are amazing things that cancer has done; I've learned a lot and it has changed me from the inside out.

While working as a Workforce Development Specialist, Refugee Services Office I met a lot of underserved employers/minority employers who do not use business resources that are free and readily available to entrepreneurs or small businesses. Not understanding what, where and how to start a business. Barriers include language, social skills and costs. The Executive Director of a Pacific Island organization - namely PIK2AR - and I talked about the gap of services to people of color and this includes Pacific Islanders and refugees, so we created the Pacific Island Business Alliance to bridge communities and businesses where profits and people are equally important. What the Pacific Island Business Alliance does is addresses barriers and helping people start or build their businesses. I am talking more hands-on help. It is teaching them how to use a credit card machine or creating an invoice, walking them through where to apply for a business license and explaining business etiquette and what it means to have a business in the United States. We also collaborate with other organizations and resources. You can find out more here: www.pik2ar.org.

The buzz word now in the business communities is Diversity & Inclusion. I will define it as 'No Person Left Behind.' We do not want to leave anyone behind, white, yellow, brown & black. There is a misconception on who refugees are and what they can bring to the table or community. My responsibility is to educate businesses and individuals on what, why, where and how refugees are an added value to the economy, to their business and to the community. We have several programs on how people can volunteer or businesses that can partner with us. The extraordinary thing that we do is that we are hands on and we know the people we serve, we know refugees. I can talk about the different programs that we have to get employers excited. You can learn more about that here: refugee.utah.gov.

It is important to know what you are passionate about and what legacy or impact you want to leave behind that you invest your time and resources to it. My children love books so we found an organization called Empower Tonga that collects books for Pre-K through 8th graders and send these books to Tonga. So, we will participate in this. I am passionate about dancing so I have taught kids dancing for over 10+ years for free. My husband and I also enjoy volunteering for various organizations by addressing barriers and providing resources and hands-on help, and also educating about violence prevention. There are so many opportunities out there to volunteer or just get to know people. You can find ways at work where you may want to stop eating at your desk or on your computer or phone, but being intentional in wanting to know someone that looks different from you; different intellect, different culture, different color, religion, political affiliation, etc. It could be someone is disabled, a veteran, an immigrant, white, a refugee, etc. Once you get to know them, it changes your perspective. It is about building and maintaining relationships.

Battling with stage 4 cancer has been an enormous struggle. Imagine waking up in the morning, and your brain wants you to get up but the body is so exhausted that you can barely roll to one side then you cannot get up because you cannot feel your feet and you're stumbling to get up the stairs to get a drink but you cannot touch the fridge or freezer because you feel someone cracking glass on your hands, so you get the water but unable to drink it because you are drinking broken glass down your throat. This is what 14 rounds of chemo treatment did to me. Seems like things took three-times longer! The once fast-paced, energetic working mother can barely do any of the things that she used to do that included driving, cooking, caring for my children. It was difficult because I did not have family close by to assist. I reached out to my church family and they assigned me a coordinator and continues to be there since the beginning. My team-mates have been a great support in checking up on me and being present. My children have taken on various chores and assignments at home. My husband has been an amazing support and rock to love, encourage and motivate me to fight until the battle is won. Here is my facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/381700429327623/."

To support Agnes, please visit any of the aforementioned links, or email her directly at alomu@utah.gov.