By Cynthia Ryan
Homeless With Cancer
On the streets, cancer has a different face
By Cynthia Ryan
Today, Wells, 48, is living temporarily with other recovering addicts in an apartment operated by a homeless shelter in Birmingham. “I wish things were different,” he said, “but cancer just took me down another street.”
IN EDWINA'S SHOES
Three months after I first met Edwina Sanders, I stood beside her as she waited in pre-op to undergo a mastectomy at Cooper Green. One tough cookie, she held my hand and wept as she anticipated going in for surgery. She was scared—of the cancer, the institution treating her, the medicine being used to put her to sleep—but her sister scolded her for crying over the impending loss of her breast.
Despite the wide gulf of differences between us, Sanders and I seemed to be the only ones in the room who got it. It wasn’t about the breast. It wasn’t about any of the stupid things that we spend 99 percent of our lives worrying about. It was about lying there, not knowing what would happen as a result of the surgery, sensing that things would never be the same again. I remembered how it felt to be in Sanders’ shoes.
Well, not quite.
Unlike me, Sanders wouldn’t grasp her doctor’s explanation three weeks later that although all of the remaining tumor and surrounding tissue were removed, she still had cancer and still needed more tests, and possibly more treatment. Lacking health insurance, she wouldn’t have the option of reconstructive surgery and would go on a waiting list for a used prosthesis. She would return, at least temporarily, to the house owned by her sister, not knowing if and when the bank would seek to have them evicted. And she would struggle with a way to pay for phone service to remain in touch with her doctors and with “Miss Rachael” at the church, enough food to keep up her strength, and bus fare to Cooper Green for her next appointment.
As we waited side by side for Sanders to be wheeled into surgery, I thought about how effortlessly our lives had become intertwined and how odd a pair we must seem to someone from the outside. While it took a newsletter headline to draw me into Sanders’ life, her spunk kept me there. Despite all that she lacks, or perhaps because of it, Sanders refuses to let cancer define who she is—a feat that I can’t always manage.
But then, Sanders already took things day by day—a perspective on life to which many survivors aspire—long before she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Standing next to her in pre-op, I had to ask myself why for so many years I never stopped to notice Sanders and others like her in my city, arrogantly assuming that a homeless person couldn’t possibly have a better grasp on handling a life-changing event than I.
“We like sisters,” Sanders told me on more than one occasion. “Well, you kind of like my momma too, cause you and Miss Rachael, y’all take care of me.”
I wonder if Sanders knows that she has taught me a thing or two about walking through cancer as well, one courageous step at a time.
(photos: © Sylvia Plachy)