Cancer affects millions of people every year, and the incarcerated population of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is no exception. A cancer diagnosis can feel scary and overwhelming for anyone. Incarcerated cancer patients face even greater challenges because they have less access to outside support. One man at SCI Huntingdon took his experience of overcoming the odds – beating a diagnosis of stage 4 colon and liver cancer – and used it the help others.
With the support of facility medical staff, he started a cancer support group.
The man approached Registered Nurse April Long and Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) Melanie Wagman with his idea to pay if forward. After receiving authorization from administration, a group of 10 incarcerated cancer patients from the man’s housing zone were asked individually to join the group, named Remember What You Are Fighting For.
Each man agreed to participate.
“You don’t know how much this means to me,” said the group’s founding member as tears started to flow. “I was dealt this horrible hand and beat the beast. I was given a second chance and I do not want to go down without a fighting chance to help others deal with this horrible disease.”
At the first meeting in April 2022, most of the participants initially seemed hesitant to speak up, according to LPN Wagman, who serves as group advisor. But as the founding member shared his own story, something changed.
“Each of the men started the session by saying something like ‘I’m not a big talker,’” said Wagman. “But as the conversation progressed and they realized the depth and breadth of their shared experience, something changed. They couldn’t stop talking.”
The group covers topics including the importance of rest, diet, exercise, spirituality, and simply having someone to talk to. Staff provides relevant information, and participants are afforded the opportunity to ask questions in a confidential, safe environment. But most important is the community of patients supporting each other.
“There is a gentleman who could hardly walk a fourth of the track and is now walking three laps daily. Another man was refusing treatment but now has a port placed to begin treatment,” said Wagman. “Every meeting I find myself more and more surprised with these individuals and how far they are coming.”
The Remember What You Are Fighting For group is growing and welcoming new members from other housing zones. Men in different facility zones don’t typically interact, so the group’s founder wrote a letter to potential members. A portion of that letter can be seen below.