An Old Friend, in Prison with Cancer

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager, Oncology Social Work, Emeritus

OCTOBER 15, 2018

Does anyone deserve this?

A few days ago, I received a letter from an old friend. She and I had been completely out of touch for 10 or 15 years; I had tried, with no success, to find her.. The return address on the envelope read: "Arizona State Prison Complex, Perryville." It would be a great understatement to say that I was shocked to read that she has been in jail for six years. She wrote that her case involved securities fraud, no other details.

Even more distressing than learning what had happened in her life was reading about her experience of breast cancer in prison. While incarcerated, she was diagnosed with a Stage IIIB breast cancer; she was treated with mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. Blessedly, she has been well since then.

Here are a few quotes from her letter about what is it like to have breast cancer in jail:

"...at midnight, I was handcuffed and shackled and taken in a bus with 49 other women to the old jail where we sat from 2:00 AM until 4:30 AM in the old morgue, a big, windowless, dirty, concrete room with an open toilet on one wall. There are no chairs...There are little roaches everywhere...The door opens at 4:30, and we are moved upstairs to the old condemned cells, 8' by 16', four metal bunks, and one open toilet. There are 10 women to a cell...All of these women are going to court. Not me. I am going to Maricopa Medical Center for a mastectomy."

" Finally, my chemo does start and I am very sick. The kitchen sends me trays of regular food, and I vomit. I go to the kitchen to beg for just broth or plain potatoes. Nope. Nothing they can do. On my way back to my yard, I collapse, vomiting. A guard comes and asks if I can walk the three blocks to Medical...One third of the way across the soccer field, I collapse and vomit some more...As I lie there, a sergeant comes towards me, asking disgustedly: "What's the issue?" How do you answer that? Cancer, chemo. I'm sick. And I vomit some more. His shoes are eye level. Shiny. Not boots like everyone else. I notice he keeps them well away from me."

" Despite the rigid chemo schedule, never is the medication ready on time nor is the newly discovered chemo diet ready. I have to spend my sickest days walking to Medical, begging..."

"I lose all my hair. I ask for a turban. Medical looks at me blankly and sends me to Security. It's not their responsibility. Back to Medical who refuse to see me. It's not them. It's Security. I'm sick and finally in tears...I trudge back to my room, exhausted."

"There are always reasons to be glad. All of this reminds me that there are so many who suffer regardless of where they are. No one's pain is unique, certainly not mine. I use use my fear to strengthen my resolve and my joy and maintain my balance in the midst of chaos. I will use this experience, cancer in prison, to help others survive their pain wherever I am...inside or out."

Why is anyone treated this way? Why is any woman forced to endure breast cancer treatment surrounded by hostility, indifference and cruelty? This blog is not meant to stimulate a dialogue about our penal system or justice. We can all agree that anyone undergoing cancer treatment is entitled to human dignity and kindness.

I am unable to understand what has happened to my friend. She did not try to explain her life choices nor to make any excuses. I remember her as a beautiful, red-haired, vibrant, bursting-with-life, fun, funny and loving woman. I will be in touch with her, and I hope all of us remember our sisters in this cancer world who are dealing with so much pain.

Please share your thoughts about this story. As you would suspect, it has been very upsetting for me on a number of levels. You can contribute here: http://www.cancercommunity.bidmc.org/