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This article was first published by Mule Creek Post, a prison newspaper at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California. The article has been lightly edited to add clarity and conform with PJP style rules.

Last fall, the residents of Mule Creek State Prison organized an event to bring awareness to various types of cancer in November. 

“No Shave November” is a month-long pledge to refrain from shaving one’s facial hair in support of those whose cancer treatment robs them of their hair. More than 75 men registered their commitment. 

When someone inquires of these men why they haven’t shaved, this creates an opportunity for the participants to explain the significance of awareness. Some men have facial hair that itches or grows in unsightly and uneven patches. The discomfort they experience gives them perspective about the suffering of people afflicted with one of the many forms of cancer. 

Awareness is critical to prevention and early detection of illness in men, especially with incarcerated men who often neglect aspects of their health beyond doing pushups and pull-ups. 

In 2019, 89 inmates died of cancer while in the custody of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), according to California Correctional Health Care System statistics. It has been the leading cause of natural death among prisoners since 2006, reported Dr. Kent Imai in his, “Analysis of 2019 Inmate Deaths Review in the California Health Care System” published Jan. 11, 2021. Imai is a consultant tasked by the California prison receivership with overseeing inmate medical care and conditions of treatment. 

Facility E resident Mathew Nall shared his 2012 experience with cancer. After feeling pain in his testicles, Nall filled out a CDCR 7362 (Health Care Services Request for Treatment). The result of the subsequent ultrasound test shook him to the core — he had testicular cancer. 

“They told me if I had waited it might have been too late,” said Nall. After surgery, the doctors told an anxious Nall they had successfully removed all of the cancer.  

Six weeks later, doctors discovered the cancer had spread to Nall’s spine before the first surgery. This second diagnosis involved two months of aggressive chemotherapy. He decided to keep it to himself. 

“I didn’t tell my family [because] I didn’t feel mentally strong enough to reassure them that everything would be okay,” said Nall. 

For the next two months, Nall sat in a medical bay for two hours a week with a chemo tube protruding from his chest. “I had to go back to my cell feeling sick as a dog,” said Nall. “It was worse than kicking heroin.” 

His decision to withhold the cancer diagnosis from his family and friends left them to speculate what was going on. “Everyone assumed I was on drugs again. I was always nauseated; I had chills, pain, and thought I was gonna die,” Nall recalled. 

After eight rounds of chemo, Nall was once again proclaimed cancer-free. “I finally told my family,” he said. “They were upset I hadn’t told them, especially my girl. She was hurt, but everyone was relieved that I was OK.”   

Nall came away with a new appreciation for life, even in prison. “The key is not to give in,” he explained, adding that he wants others to be proactive in their health care. “Self-examination is important. Don’t be embarrassed, it could save your life. Filling out that CDCR Form 7362 that day saved my life.” 

Residents of Facility B coordinated a fundraiser, donating money to the nonprofit STARS, which provides free rides to radiation and chemotherapy treatments throughout the counties of Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado, Sacramento and San Joaquin. 

“It feels really good to do this event, and to support those fighting cancer,” said Facility B resident Rickey Davis. “This is to those who lost the fight.”

Mathew Toerner participated in honor of his grandfather, Gerald Eugene Toerner, who at 80 had been battling prostate cancer for more than four years. On December 2, just one day after Toerner shaved his beard, Grandpa Toerner passed away surrounded by friends and family. He was survived by his high school sweetheart and wife of 59 years, Barbara, four children, five grandchildren and several great-grandchildren. 

“Grandpa, I love you,” said Toerner. “I am proud to be your grandson and honored to carry your name. I can because you taught me how, and with every beat of my heart and breath from my lungs, I will remember you; and you will live on in me.” 

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Christopher Bryson is a reporter for the The Mule Creek Post, a newspaper published out of Mule Creek State Prison in California, where he is incarcerated.