By Cynthia Ryan
Homeless With Cancer
On the streets, cancer has a different face
By Cynthia Ryan
A Greenwood, Miss., native, Miles suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and severe depression, and he has attempted suicide at least twice during the 15 years in which he has lived mostly homeless in Birmingham—once by hanging and once by setting himself on fire. Most days, he roams the neighborhood to “help out Miss Mattie and Miss Josie,” two elderly women living around the corner, “with whatever chores they need done.”
“I do better when I walk,” Miles told me while standing outside his “home,” shifting his body side to side, eager to move on.
A SAFE SPACE
I was 29 when first diagnosed with stage I breast cancer in 1993. From June until the following spring, I attempted to dodge pain deeper than I thought possible by losing myself in senseless movies and juicy novels, spilling my worries onto the pages of a journal, and nourishing my body and soul with bowls of soup, mugs of hot tea, and cool, creamy milkshakes on the days when my mouth was riddled with too many sores for me to chew real food.
Two weeks after I met Lisa Brown in January, to talk about her experiences with stage IV breast cancer, she needed some distraction of her own. Residing temporarily in a rundown motel room with her husband, Michael, she headed back out to the streets.
Brown had first felt a painful lump in her breast in 2009 while serving a prison sentence for crack cocaine possession. Brown, who is 44, says a prison doctor told her the lump was just a cyst. Four and a half months later, Brown was transferred to a Birmingham rehabilitation facility for female inmates re-entering society. There, she says, a second doctor assured her the lump was nothing to worry about.
But when the pain did not improve and the lump failed to shrink, Brown finally headed to Church of the Reconciler for help getting what’s known as a Blue Card, a $10 passport needed to obtain patient services at Cooper Green.
“I saw Dr. Johnson for a biopsy,” Brown told me. “One week later, he said I had aggressive breast cancer. … It was like somebody had hit me in the stomach. I figured my life was over.”
It was as surgery and chemotherapy ensued and the side effects grew worse that Brown retreated to the predictability of her old life on the streets for a few weeks earlier this year. Eventually, though, Brown mustered up the energy to begin the process of dealing with her cancer again.
(photos: © Sylvia Plachy)