By Cynthia Ryan
Homeless With Cancer
On the streets, cancer has a different face
By Cynthia Ryan
Photographs by Sylvia Plachy
Waking up to a bitterly cold November morning, Charles Geer inched his way across the floor of his home, a condemned, half-flooded warehouse in Birmingham, Ala. Sidestepping broken glass, food wrappers and tattered baby blankets, he headed to a local health clinic three blocks away.
By 5 a.m., Geer, then 53, was at the front doors of the open clinic, planning to wait inside the heated lobby for his 10 a.m. appointment. Dressed in feces-soiled blue jeans and several days from his last shower, he was approached by a uniformed guard, who ordered him out of sight.
Geer didn’t budge. “I’m not just standing here, man,” he replied. “I’m a cancer patient.”
The guard eventually waved Geer inside to await his treatment—radiation to shrink tumors on his rectum—but only after calling the oncology department to confirm his story. “I guess they have some kind of image to uphold,” Geer, a stage IV colorectal cancer patient, told me several weeks after the incident.
As Geer and I talked about the day he was almost turned away from the clinic, I couldn’t help comparing his experiences with my own as a breast cancer survivor for the past 17 years. Unlike Geer, I’ve never had to justify my status as a patient—even when clinging to a sparse head of unwashed hair and sporting a stained T-shirt during months of chemotherapy.
Those who experience cancer on the streets brave a constant struggle to find a place where they can belong—whether a temporary shelter on a brutally cold night or a medical facility with a warm waiting room. And while all survivors embark on a journey unlike any other when diagnosed with cancer, the homeless trudge a more treacherous path. Geer and other homeless cancer survivors who have shared their stories with me over the last year are evidence that however we camouflage the rawness and pain of cancer in our society—through colored ribbons of solidarity, triumphant walks of hope, or increasingly sophisticated technologies for treating the body—many who suffer the disease in silence are people we pass each day without acknowledging either their presence or their plight.
“WHEN CANCER HITS THE STREET”
I was first introduced to Geer and other cancer patients in the Birmingham, Ala., homeless community through a simple church newsletter that appeared one November morning in my university mailbox. Drawn to the headline “When Cancer Hits the Street,” I followed the return address to Church of the Reconciler—a congregation serving Birmingham’s homeless that was founded in 1993 by the Rev. Lawton Higgs Sr.—just 12 blocks from the campus where I’d been teaching for more than a decade.
As I neared the church, a holy place housed in a former meatpacking plant, I spotted a crowd standing outside a wide-open door. Men and women were huddled together, sipping coffee from Styrofoam cups, smoking cigarettes, and conversing loudly enough to drown out the noise from nearby construction and passing traffic. It was 9 a.m., and Church of the Reconciler was open to serve a hot breakfast to anyone in need.
(photos: © Sylvia Plachy)