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screen-shot-2017-02-13-at-11-27-36-pmWhere were you fifteen years ago, Valentine’s Day 2002? Some of my young friends weren’t even born yet. Some of  my sisters and brothers in orange were inside. Some of you were celebrating Valentine’s Day and some of you were lamenting the lack of cards, chocolate and flowers.

I was sitting in a doctor’s office hearing the words, “You’ve got  stage 3B breast cancer.” What? No, that can’t be right. I’ve never smoked. No one in my family has had cancer. I eat my veggies and exercise. And what the hell, it’s Valentine’s Day. Seriously??

But it was right and none of that other stuff mattered. I was tapped on the breast by Breast cancer behind the wiresthe cancer demon and began a journey I never expected. Curiously, it almost paralleled with my prison journey. If I hadn’t been diagnosed on Valentine’s Day and started chemo and had my medical records, I wouldn’t be alive today because most of my treatment including my mastectomy was behind prison walls.

Although “they” told me I probably wouldn’t live five years, fifteen years later, here I am. Christine died; Gina died; Paula died; too many died; even David died, but I’m still here. Often I wonder why. And then I look at the book by my bed, The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu.

I first checked this book from the library, but after one chapter I knew I had to own it so I rushed to Costco where it sits amongst the latest book bargains, hot off the press. You might not notice it, but Pay Attention. Forget the best selling novels screen-shot-2017-02-13-at-11-32-38-pmand take this one instead.

It’s divided into three sections:

I    The Nature of True Joy

II   The Obstacles of Joy

III  The Eight Pillars of Joy

This book will open your eyes to the difference between joy and happiness. It will open your eyes to the incredible power and joy of LIFE, despite suffering and sorrow.

You’ve heard me say it a million times, “Everyone has a story.” Mostly those stories are about pain and suffering. You’ve also heard me say that there is great power in your willingness to be vulnerable and share your story with others.

The Book of Joy distills the power of our grief, pain and suffering and gives meaning to our stories.  I’m not going to give you a book report. Nope, you have to buy it  and keep it by the bed with a marker to highlight the meaningful parts. And then put a journal with it to write your own story so you’ll know why you’re here and what you’re meant to do.

What’s your story? Have you figured out your purpose? If you haven’t, no worries. I didn’t “get” mine until I walked into prison at fifty-seven years old. (Slow learner.) Judy Pearson calls finding your purpose your 2nd Act. 

Judy is a breast cancer survivor with an incredible story and a clear vision to make a difference in the world of cancer. She founded A 2nd Act to do just that. A 2nd Act: Survivorship Takes the Stage is a live, curated stage performance, featuring a cast of eight women survivors of ALL types of cancers, local to the city in which the show is being held. Professionally produced, each woman has auditioned for a slot to share her own story of how she’s using her post-diagnosis gifts of time and experience for the greater good.

I’m deeply honored to have been chosen to be part of the Phoenix cast for 2017 and Sunday we had our first table reading. At that table, The Book of Joy came to life. All of the women there realized the power of their stories while they were going through their suffering and from their pain, they have manifested extraordinary 2nd Acts. Their courage is humbling and inspiring.

The Phoenix event on Sunday, March 12th. I hope you will visit the website to get the details. If you know anyone who has battled cancer or if you have, I urge you to attend this event and bring your friends. You will laugh, cry, be outraged delighted and you may see yourself in one of the stories. Here’s the link to the site: https://a2ndact.org/the-2nd-act/

Meanwhile, back to Valentine’s Day. Maybe you have a marvelous date tonight. Maybe you’re sad because you’re alone. Consider this. In doctor’s offices all over the world women and men and children are hearing the words, “You’ve got cancer.” In a heart-beat, their lives are changed forever.

Here’s your chance for a really special Valentine’s Day. Instead of feeling blue, why not take some flowers to a senior center or a hospital or the VA? Why not invite your mother to dinner? Think outside the box and get creative. What wonderful thing can you do to brighten someone else’s Valentine’s Day? Who knows, it might feel so good it will become your 2nd Act!

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Included in the excitement of actually being interviewed on the WH driveway was my request to Hannah for some saltine crackers and tea bags. Still felt queasy but determined Not To Be Sick. Cannot throw up on the President or First Lady.

Dianne and I rushed back across the park in the still freezing wind for a taxi. Back to the hotel for rest and lunch. Poor Dianne. Instead of bright and cheerful, I was pathetic company and my lunch was crackers. Another cab, this time to the Department of Justice for our meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch. All the while I’m thinking, “This must be a mistake. They’re going to call and say, “Sorry, we meant the OTHER Sue Ellen Allen.” But they don’t call. They did mean me. Still pinching myself.

We’re dropped off at the huge, imposing Department of Justice Building (http://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/jmd/legacy/2014/06/3
IMG_39040/75RFKBuilding.pdf ) that covers an entire block and has over a million square feet of space. There were also imposing guards who told us we could not enter there. Walk around to the other side of the building. No begging or pleading allowed. After seven years in prison I’m familiar with that so we started the trudge. At mid-point, we were met by other guards who turned us back. We can’t go that way. But, But, But…Back we trudged and yes, we were freezing. We walked around again to the other side of this huge building and met even more guards who didn’t want us to pass. Finally after some radio conversation, we were allowed to go to another entrance where police cars were stacked up and barricades piled. We learned there’d been an unexpected demonstration and now we were finally allowed to enter. We were 25 minutes late for a meeting with the Attorney General!

But it wasn’t over. We entered a lobby with even more security. Much More. And a long line. We could be there a long time. I started to sweat when my phone rang. Help was on the way. The AG’s staffer magically appeared and we were whisked through all the security barriers, up the elevator and down long, impressive corridors in the million square feet of space. Finally we reached a lovely conference room with a table beautifully set for tea. We were a long way from prison.

Eight faces turned to greet us. Very late, very embarrassed. But Mrs. Lynch is not only brilliant and accomplished, she is charming and gracious and made us feel right at home in this incredible space where other brilliant people have IMG_3924gathered and history has been made. Besides her staff, there were two other SOTU guests, Mark Luttrell, Mayor of Shelby County, Tennessee, and Kathleen O’Toole, Police Chief, Seattle, Washington. Mayor Luttrell has a long history in criminal justice reform, including serving as a warden with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. And Chief O’Toole has been recognized for her innovative approach to community policing focused on transparency. The conversation centered on innovation and how to solve the enormous problems both communities and inmates face upon reentry. Dianne was able to tell Mrs. Lynch about Gina and how incarceration impacts families for years afterwards.

Because of our lateness, Chief O’Toole and Mayor Luttrell had to leave, but Mrs. Lynch and her staff stayed to hear our stories and Gina’s Team’s idea for IMG_3936reentry, a market driven, public/private sector program to involve the entire community. She also gave us a tour of her offices, built during the recession when they had access to incredible artists, sculptors and craftsmen who created an incredible space to represent justice in our country. I wish it was always balanced and fair but I know it’s not. And it’s a far cry from the way prisons look. Nevertheless, I was grateful to be there and impressed by the team I met. I’ve sat at many conference meetings IMG_3939where all the attendees from the CEO down were men except me. This was the first time that of the ten people at the table, only two were men, and that included Mayor Luttrell who was a guest. The energy felt different to me, more open, more aware, more hopeful, more compassionate.

Now we had a choice. Arizona Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema is on our Leadership Council and has supported our work since we started. She invited us to a reception to meet Vice President Joe Biden whom I would love to meet. I hate to miss anything but not this time. I was still queasy and I knew I needed my energy for later. We only had about two hours before we met the car downstairs so we skipped it. I hated that. Bless Dianne for being sympathetic.

Finally we dressed; we checked each other out; it was time to go. White House, here we come…IMG_3982

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Did I mention it was a frantic week? The normal meetings that begin a new year were coupled with those daily logistical calls from ID Unknown. Now I looked forward to them.  I admit, it was fun to say, “I’ve got to take this; it’s the White House.” They wanted a bio and a headshot. Sure I can do a bio for the WH. I’m a writer. Full disclosure, waste of time. They took mine and then wrote one that was infinitely better.

I also got calls from  Wanda, a very professional and understanding woman with another government agency, about travel arrangements. It’s a five hour flight to Washington from Phoenix plus the time difference. Dianne and I  would leave on Monday morning and return to Phoenix Wednesday night. They would arrange hotel, transfers, etc. And to answer your question, no, we did not travel first class.

Then there were things like getting my twenty five year old winter coat cleaned. Not much need for coats in Phoenix so it’s in really good shape. It’s freezing in DC so time to get it out. Then just to complicate things, I was nauseated all week with occasional vomiting. You know how it is when you throw up and then feel better? I never felt better, so I just chalked it off to nerves. But why? I’d served seven years in prison. Why would I be nervous about the WH? All this nausea was annoying. I wanted to enjoy this, not feel sick.

When the WH made the official announcement on Saturday, (First Lady’s guest at SOTU) the phone started ringing and my email jumped exponentially. The WH had warned me that this would be fifteen minutes of fame and to be prepared, not only for the media requests and congratulatory wishes but the negative, “Who do you think you are?” comments. Ex-prisoners get a lot of that.

First there was the WH exclusive with BuzzFeed.  Then I did some local interviews, trying to look fresh and excited (which I was) while trying not to look sick and nauseous (which I also was). The AZ Republic made me sound and look excited without the nausea. AZ Central Story And Channel 12, the local NBC affiliate did a twenty-five minute interview that was edited down to about sixty seconds. (That’s quite a talent.)

Finally it was time to pack and try to sleep. I hadn’t slept all week so why start now? The only time I’m actually good with a list is when I travel so I kept checking things off and when it was time to leave for the airport I was actually ready.

Dianne and I flew out on Monday morning and the excitement started at the airport. As we were checking in, I noticed a group of our Arizona Republican legislators standing together waiting for the flight. I told Dianne we should go over and introduce ourselves. After all, we were all going to the same place, sort of.

Hi, I’m Sue Ellen Allen and I’m … before I could finish, Congressman Matt Salmon piped in. “I recognize you from the paper. You’re going to SOTU.” He added that he was good friends with Judge Cecil Ash who has been a strong supporter of Gina’s Team since the beginning. It was a nice start to our journey.

IMG_3892

Dianne and I took the requisite selfie and posted it on FB. I can’t remember posting anything else that week; it’s a blur. Full disclosure, it takes me about 8 minutes to write a Tweet because I was an English major and I loath bad punctuation. I just cannot write R for ARE. Likewise I’m always editing my FB posts for spelling and punctuation. Instagram would not be instant with me.

In DC, we were met at the airport as promised and taken to the Sofitel, attractive, French, close to the WH, lovely room with a view and great French food. We went down for dinner our first night but I was still nauseous so I chose a very simple crepe. It was delicious but didn’t sit well on my stomach and when we went upstairs, I made it to the bathroom just in time. I love French food; this is worrisome. What is wrong with me?

The next morning I was still queasy so we decided to have room service. Oatmeal sounded best  and I think along with the oatmeal I ingested a lot of adrenalin because that kept me going all day.

The WH is big on logistics. I got a schedule for everything. First, a meeting with my press representative from the White House press office. An interview with AP and NBC on the WH lawn. Later, a meeting with the Attorney General, Loretta Lynch. (But I’m an ex-felon.) The next day, a meeting with Senior Presidential Advisor Valerie Jarrett’s team. I got a color coded map and directions and somehow still managed to be late. I HATE TO BE LATE. But even in DC, taxi cab drivers aren’t used to passengers telling them to take them to the east gate of the WH. And you can’t just drive up there. You have to be dropped off at strategic locations and walk. And yes, it was freezing.

After gasping our way across Lafayette Square in the bone-chilling wind, Dianne and I arrived at the WH press gate late. One doesn’t just waltz in to the WH. There are several layers of security to pass, all manned by serious looking and very attractive young men in fantastic shape. I wouldn’t want to cross them. Finally we walked up the WH driveway past a row of green awning press sections where the media hangs out. They call it Pebble Beach. Inside, the waiting room for the press office is appropriately decorated in 19th century American motif and has another attractive young man to check us. This was coupled with serious looking Marines, there especially because the President was in residence that day.

Each of the twenty-three guests invited to sit in the First Lady’s box had been assigned a press IMG_3916representative. I was most fortunate to have Hannah, another very attractive woman who looked young but had incredible media experience. (Why are they all so young and good looking? Probably because I’m seventy! Everybody’s young and attractive.) Hannah took me out to “Pebble Beach” for a quick interview with a very nice man from Associated Press and then another with a lovely woman from NBC. It was all a blur and I haven’t a clue what I actually said. Hannah didn’t seem to think I’d disgraced myself.

As I was waiting for camera set up, Rachel Maddow IMG_3910walked by from MSNBC. Oh my goodness. I’m a huge fan and my late husband David adored her. He never missed a show. So instead of saying something intelligent to her, I gushed over what a big fan David was. She reminded me that she was a big proponent of criminal justice reform and had a background in the issue. It was my entrée to a longer conversation but I was star struck. Rachel, if you read this, can we have coffee and talk about prison? …

Stay tuned for Part 3

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Part 1:
NEVER would I expect to say that; NOT a passing thought on my list of goals. But Sunday night, January 3rd at 7:33 my phone rang. ID unknown. I ignored it. They called again. Then again and left a message. “Ms. Allen, this is  XYZ at the White House calling. My number is blahblahblah. Would you please call me back at your earliest convenience?” Of course, like the movies, my first, second and third thoughts were, it’s a joke. So I Googled the White House and called the operator. After I identified myself, I asked her if this person and number indeed belonged to the White House, or the WH as they refer to it. “Yes, that is one of our staffers.” Oh my goodness. OH MY GOODNESS. I guess I’d better call back.

This nice young man (everyone is young to me) Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 11.01.26 AMfirst thanked me for my prison work. Nice, I thought, but get on with it. Why are you calling me? “I’m calling to invite you to be a guest of the First Lady in her box at the State of The Union address on January 12th.”

Yes, my entire life flashed before me. “Seriously? SERIOUSLY” He laughed, assuring me he was quite serious. “But you know I’m an ex-felon?” Again, he assured me they knew all about me. Yes, I guess they do.

He was actually politely waiting for me to accept and bring a guest, all at the WH’s expense. Yes, YES of course I’ll come and I’ll invite Gina’s mother Dianne as my Plus 1. We had a nice chat about our work at Gina’s Team and what President Obama would like to accomplish in criminal justice in his last year in office. He told me I was sworn to secrecy until the WH announced the list of guests. No Facebooking, Tweeting, etc. I agreed and then I calmly told him I had to go because Downton Abbey was starting and I couldn’t miss it. (Good grief, who hangs up on the WH?)  He assured me he was also a fan and hated to miss it but he had more calls to make. The best part of his job was making these calls.

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 11.06.08 AMI then calmly proceeded to watch the first episode of Downton  and then I called Dianne to invite her. After she stopped stammering, she proceeded to give me all the reasons why she couldn’t come with me. Hates to travel; nothing to wear; has a root canal scheduled for Monday and a mammogram on Tuesday; and of course, nothing to wear.

“Gosh, Dianne, let me see: White House – Root canal; White House – Mammogram. Which one sounds better?!  Are you kidding me???

Sheepishly she said she’d love to go with me and we started to giggle. It was going to be a great trip.

I spent the week ransacking my closet. What to wear to the WH and SOTU? I researched the previous SOTU pictures of the First Lady’s box and I got some history. This tradition actually started with Ronald Regan and has gained prominence as the media got hungrier. There are plenty of pictures of the guests. Mostly they are dressed in black, with the first ladies in some lovely color. OK, so I need to find color in my closet. Black slacks, of course. It’s cold in DC and I’m not dealing with a skirt. I started pulling jackets out. That’s pretty much my wardrobe, black slacks and colorful jackets, all designer labels from thrift stores. I try to keep the price tag under $15.

After lots of trying on, I settled on a turquoise silk Kasper jacket with black lapels. Yes, from a thrift shop. I thought the color was good and I planned to wear a special pin that would look good on that lapel.

Almost twenty-five years ago when I had a fashion jewelry company named for me, we were commissioned by the Congressional Club to designIMG_4169 a pin for First Lady Barbara Bush to commemorate A Thousand Points of Light, celebrating volunteerism in America. We were invited to Washington where we had a VIP tour of the White House; then we were special guests at the Congressional Club annual VIP luncheon honoring Mrs. Bush where she was presented with the pin I designed. Additionally, every guest received a smaller version to remember the day.

In a story as long and complicated as my life’s journey, a year later  we lost our company in a hostile take over, were indicted for securities fraud and my road turned into Perryville Prison in Goodyear, Arizona, where this story begins. I had gone from the White House to prison where I met Gina and so many others.

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 11.23.51 AMI served seven years, the longest and darkest of my life. On March 18, 2009 I walked freely back into the world, blessed to have the support of generous friends. My vision was Gina’s Team, an organization that would help the women I left behind and all the other women in prisons everywhere.  Gina’s parents and I co-founded it; started with nothing and built a prison program to remarkable success teaching leadership based on the ATHENA Leadership Model.

But honestly, we were also working on air and adrenalin. Prison work isn’t a popular cause so donations are always a challenge. I worked without salary and we had a devoted staffer who worked part time for minimum wage. We had enough work for a team of people and juggled as fast as we could. We were looking for ways to expand but couldn’t see how.  And then the White House called…

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HairHairHair…

Why do we care
about hair?

What’s with the love affair
with hair?

Any supermarket, drug store or super store sells
miles and miles of hair care

Shampoo, conditioner, jel, mousse, wax, spray, glaze, color and bleach
A $160 BILLION business…Good grief. It’s only Hair.

It gets dirty
splits ends
has to be cut
limps or frizzes
falls out then
grows in places we don’t want it…

And yet

We care
so much
about hair.

Why do I care
about hair?

Born a redhead. Love my hair; thick and long.Screen Shot 2012-04-23 at 6.10.30 PM
Lots of body; does just what I want it to.
Never have to color it, perm it or battle it.
I love my hair.

Then Cancer comes.
Diagnoses instantly brings two thoughts:

Oh My God, I’m going to lose my breast, my hair…
Not necessarily in that order.

It’s on the pillow; in the shower.
The time comes. Shave it off.
TraumaDramaTrauma.IMG_2100
Not painful but it hurts.
Visible sign I’m sick.
I have cancer. I might die.

But I don’t die. Twelve years later I’m still here;
still thinking about hair.

Chemo; hair falls out. Who am I without my hair?
Mastectomy; hair starts growing back.
More chemo; hair falls out again. Who am I without my hair?
Hair grows back…sort of. ThinThinThin and grey and who am I without my hair?

I’m surrounded by Hair. Long Blond, Black, Brown, Blond Hair.
Who am I without my hair?
B & W shirt

Did you know?

Hair can be bought.
Hair can be had.

Did you know?
Beyoncé and Tina and Cher
all buy hair.

For a cancer patient,
insurance will pay for
fake breasts
and fake hair
So… I got breasts
and I got hair.

See there.
427481_392450830808345_1114863785_n

There I am
with lots of hair,
with thin thin hair,
with no hair,
with fake hair.

Who am I without my hair?
Who are you With your hair?

You know what? It’s only hair.
YOU are YOU
and I am Me
with or without the hair.

So there.

 

 

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As a “nice white lady,” I’m going to give you the straight skinny. We are a nation of racists. Oh, it’s not like it was in the dark ages when I was growing up. I was born in 1945 into a town divided by a railroad track, the symbolic line in every Southern town, that kept black and white families from mixing, beyond the colored help who made sure the white families were comfortable in our world of make-believe.

Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 10.41.56 PMThose White and Colored water fountains and restrooms were everywhere, but I never gave them a thought. After all, I was young and white with all the privilege that conveyed. Then when I was three, we left Texas for a remote part of Venezuela that you could not find on a map. My father was an engineer, there to help build an oil refinery. We lived in a walled and gated, even luxurious, housing compound for the ‘white foreigners.’ Of course, there was native help to make sure we were comfortable in another gated land of make-believe.

I grew up moving every two years; back and forth across the Atlantic and into the Caribbean. In every country I took for granted the privilege that went with my color and I never gave it a thought. The AHA moment finally came at the University of Texas in Austin where I gained an awareness of racial stereotype and discrimination. By then, the White and Colored water fountains and restrooms had disappeared, and I still hadn’t given them a thought. It never occurred to me how a human being would feel being defined by a sign, nor why it was necessary.

Then I joined a group of do-gooders, some of the first ‘cross-over teachers’ in Texas. My father, newly retired, was furious. I had humiliated the family. He would have to quit his clubs and leave town. I ignored the empty threat because I was naïvely determined to change the world.

Every day I drove across the railroad tracks, that symbolic crossing into another world. We were a handful of brand new, green as grass white teachers forced on the older, much more experienced black teachers. They welcomed us with dignity and respect; the students with skepticism and hostility. Gradually, we made peace and grew together in respect and affection. There were no White and Colored bathrooms or water fountains. There was only a crumbling building with very few supplies, compared to the new white high school across town. If I had been black during that time, I would have been out fiercely protesting. Instead, I went home every day to my nice white world of comfort and privilege and didn’t change anything.

Fast-forward thirty-five years. I left teaching and joined the business world. I worked my way up the corporate ladder to a vice-presidency, the only woman on the team. Then at age 57, I entered prison for securities fraud; once again another world, only this time the line was a real one of nasty, twisted razor wire. Finally, I was in an environment that led me to the next AHA moment.

I was no longer a woman with a name; I was an inmate with a number; I was an ‘offender.’ There was even a policy. I would no long be called Ms. Allen or even Sue Ellen. I would only be Allen, inmate Allen, or my prison number. Respect and courtesy were left on the other side of the wire.

There was something else that contributed to the AHA moment. There were Staff and Offender restrooms and water fountains, just to remind us that we weren’t people anymore. When I first saw them, I felt sick and dirty, dirty and untouchable. I remembered the White and Colored signs of my youth and I was ashamed, ashamed of my blindness and privilege.

Now I’m ashamed again. The Little Rock Nine walked the gauntlet in 1957. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous speech in 1963. The Selma March was in 1965. We have our first black president yet we are still murdering and incarcerating young black men at an alarming rate. Racism is alive and well, even though it is much more subtle.

I’m ashamed but I’m also thankful. I’m thankful that my prison journey woke me up. I will never know what it’s like to grow up black in America and all that entails. I only know what it’s like to be diminished, denigrated and humiliated. I know what it’s like to have a label that makes me feel dirty, a label (inmate, offender, ex-con, ex-felon) that will never go away. We don’t do our time, get out and rebuild our lives. The barriers are huge, whatever your color and background. Society has created the gift that keeps on giving. Ironically it’s like the old Colored and White signs, only now it’s Normal Person and Offender. Since 40% of inmates are Black, it’s just a redesign of those old signs.

Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 10.48.46 PMNow that you know I’ve been in prison and I’m really an ‘offender,’ you may dispute the ‘nice white lady’ label I gave myself at the beginning of this, but please don’t dispute that we are a nation of racists. Whether you are subtle or ‘in-your-face,’ all of us can have a tiny or large piece of fear in our hearts, the fear that is the foundation of racism. At the risk of sounding cheesy, examine the rest of your heart. Seek the peace, courage and love that also reside there. Seek ways to diminish the fear. Seek the hope. I believe we can do it. I believe in US.

*http://www.thefountainartscenter.org

 

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Pale Pink Ribbon 2It’s October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The world of pink –  ribbons, t-shirts, give aways and things to buy. We race for the cure. We stand up to cancer. We support our loved ones battling or surviving the disease. We hear stories of women who have taken the journey, but there is one population we never mention, women with breast cancer behind bars.

Can you imagine the feel of shackles on your ankles? Hard, cold steel that does just what it’s supposed to do. It cuts into your ankles and restricts your movements to baby steps. Even when you are very careful, you wind up with blisters or ankles rubbed raw. And the weight alone drags you down.

Now imagine handcuffs. They too are designed to restrict but they can chaff and cut, especially if the guard who cuffs you is having a bad day. His bad day becomes yours, but your blisters are yours alone.

It’s two o’clock in the morning and the halls of the jail are bustling with guards dragging chains while inmates stand restlessly against the cinderblock walls. Dirty cream walls, faded black and white stripes, clanging, clashing cuffs and shackles. All that plus the commotion of fifty female inmates and ten khaki clad jail guards prepping us for the trip to court.

I’m not going to court; I’m going the the hospital to have my breast cut off. It’s time. I’ve had the poison. Now it’s the slashing. Then it’s the burning. Poison, slash, burn. That’s what they call chemotherapy, mastectomy, radiation. Poison, slash, burn.

I’ve been cuffed and shackled since two AM. I’m exhausted and freezing. The old morgue where they keep us for several hours is like an ice rink. Despite the cold, there are those tiny little roaches everywhere. They add to the despair.

Finally, when everyone else has been called to court and I am alone with my fears, I hear my name, “ALLEN. MOVE IT OUT! Followed by armed guards, I shuffle out to the jail van, jangling as I shuffle. The backs of those vans are cages, not designed for safety. There is a metal bench, but no seat belts, so I lurch each time we turn a corner. I cannot balance myself because of the cuffs and shackles and sometimes I crash to the floor. I’m bruised and shaken to my core.

Finally we arrive at the hospital. I shuffle into another holding cell and wait several more hours, still alone and very afraid. I’m crushed with a feeling of shame that I’m now much less than human. Four hours later I’m escorted to the OR. There the cuffs are removed, a gown is thrown at me and eventually I’m lead to the operating table.  Still shackled, I climb upon the table and they begin the very painful search for my very small veins. At last, as I begin to go under, the shackles come off. The guards will stay in the corner to watch as my breast comes off.

Five hours later I wake up in the jail ward, bandaged and sore but alive and still alone. On this particular journey, no one touches me except the surgeons with their knives and the nurses with their needles. I ask for a pastor or a priest, someone to pray with me, but no one comes.

When I finally return to the jail, the women surround me with love. At the darkest time in my life, the drug addicts, the prostitutes and the thieves looked after me and I will NEVER FORGET THEM. It is nineteen days before the medical department sees me to clean up my incision, take out the stitches and see if I’m healing.

This is the way all women experience breast cancer in prison. There is no comfort or solace. They go alone, they suffer alone, they return to their prison alone. Some might think that they deserve it, but I don’t think anyone deserves that kind of horrific treatment. It is devastating and demeaning to all of us as human beings.

It’s a dreadful journey inside or out, but there are many ways to take it. It’s one thing for Robin Roberts, Christina Applegate, Cynthia Nixon or Sheryl Crow to face cancer. They have the very best doctors, loving family and friends to surround them, and the entire world to care. They are deemed heroes by the press.

I wonder how they would handle the isolation and the incredibly hostile indifference that inmates face.  The lack of information, attention and care. I’m lucky. I have been both a patient with cancer and an inmate with cancer. There is a world of difference. I was diagnosed before I went inside. I’d already had six sessions of chemo. I went inside with a bald head, my medical records and a high profile identity. I think that’s the reason I got treatment. Gina, my young cellmate, didn’t have that advantage and she died a painful death, not of breast cancer but of myeloid leukemia. There are many, many others who have died of cancer and medical neglect. They fought so bravely though pain, fear, neglect, hostility, exhaustion and isolation.

Ask yourself how you would handle this kind of journey? These women are mothers, wives, and daughters, many in prison for addiction or low level drug crimes.When they should be healing, they are worn out fighting for treatment, constantly reminded that nobody cares, nobody cares, nobody cares.

In 2013, 296,980 American women were diagnosed with breast cancer and nearly 40,000 died of it. Everyone who battles this disease is a hero. It is harder than you can ever imagine. I am free now and miraculously still alive, but there are thousands I’ve left behind in jails and prisons all over the world, alone and afraid with their cancer.

Everyone deserves a prayer, but please send a special one to all those invisible women who face this journey alone. No one should be alone with cancer.

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