By Cynthia Ryan
Homeless With Cancer
On the streets, cancer has a different face
By Cynthia Ryan
“It’s a lot harder to kick cancer than it was to kick drugs,” she told me as tears fell down her cheeks. “The drugs, you can know you’re done with them, they’re gone. You don’t never know if the cancer’s gone.”
When I was introduced to Roderick Turner in January, he and girlfriend Renita Weaver were living temporarily in a house owned by a “former customer” of Weaver’s—“back when I was selling my body,” she admitted softly. Turner’s prognosis for stage IV colon cancer had been gradually worsening since his diagnosis in April 2009, and as Turner’s condition declined, the couple, like Brown, took to the street.
Forty years ago, when Turner first became homeless, the street had been the one place where he had felt in control after losing his “gram, granddad and auntie, all in a six-month period.”
“I was 13 when they died, and I was angry,” he confided when we talked about why he first ventured out on his own. “I got real mad at God, ran away from him.”
The couple now alternate their time between an abandoned building and a homeless camp under an Interstate overpass where they first met, and they will likely stay there until Turner either returns to Cooper Green or dies.
But not every homeless person with cancer started out on the streets. Sometimes the burden of cancer combined with an insufficient safety net leads to homelessness. That’s how Franklin Wells, a licensed plumber in Kentucky, ended up living on the streets, where he struggled with addiction after successfully undergoing surgery, chemotherapy and radiation for lymphoma.
Wells’ parents had died, six months apart, shortly after his diagnosis in 2007. Grief-stricken, Wells researched locations around the country where he might receive advanced medical care and decided on Birmingham. During treatment, he stayed at Hope Lodge, a facility sponsored by the American Cancer Society for patients who travel long distances for care or who, like Wells, have no place to call home.
“I loved it there. We had food. It was clean, lots of kids. We’d have birthday parties and I’d get the kids toys,” he told me as we sat talking late one afternoon. “But once my treatment ended, I had to leave.”
And while most residents of Hope Lodge had a place to return after cancer treatment, Wells didn’t. “I got lost,” he admitted reluctantly. “Couldn’t stay anywhere too long, started getting into drugs.”
(photos: © Sylvia Plachy)