It’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.