“No! You were not sentenced to death,” I said in an attempt to console a fellow incarcerated woman crying hysterically inside a bathroom at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women.
As a detail worker in the south hall housing unit, it was my job to clean the bathroom. I often wound up chatting with the women living there as I cleaned.
“It’s all my fault, Cresh,” she said, looking up at me through tear-filled, hazel eyes.
“I thought I had a full hysterectomy years ago; now I found out I had a partial hysterectomy. I still have ovaries. I didn’t even know,” she blurted out and began to sob even harder.
Loretta Burroughs is better known to us in Edna Mahan as Grandma. Grandma got her nickname not just because of her age, but also for the love and hugs she bestows upon other incarcerated people here. We cherish her.
That day in the bathroom, Grandma had just been diagnosed with stage 4 cervical cancer, and she was devastated. In the years we both have been incarcerated, we have watched our friends and families — inside and out — die from cancer. I’ve lost my sister and aunt. Grandma lost her mother. I’ve watched three women in the wing of the south hall, where I am housed, die from it too.
Grandma’s type of cancer was adenocarcinoma, which is commonly caused by smoking and exposure to toxins. Grandma had never been a smoker. We can’t know for sure the cause of her cancer, but other prisons on toxic sites have been linked to a rash of illnesses. A 2014 investigation at State Correctional Institution Fayette, which was built on top of a coal mine in western Pennsylvania, found incarcerated individuals there had “alarming” rates of health problems, including cancer.
I was scared for Grandma. I was also angry. The harder Grandma sobbed, the angrier I became. But years of anger management classes have taught me that anger is a healthy emotion; it is what we do with the anger that matters.
I was angry at Grandma’s diagnosis. I was angry at cancer and the sneaky intrusiveness of this ugly disease that continues to claim the lives of the bodies it violates. I was angry at the design of this facility and others that were built on contaminated sites that can cause cancer.
According to data gathered by a journalist for Grist in 2015, over half of New Jersey’s prisons are located on toxic sites. Edna Mahan is one of them, and it’s within half a mile of another toxic site.
I have been at this facility since 2000. Not long after, I started noticing issues with the water system. Sometimes the water is green, and sometimes it has a muddy tint and a rotten smell. The majority of women I have talked to have noticed dark spots appear on their backs, which we think is from showering in contaminated water.
Shortly after the Grist article was published, I saw a lot of corrections officers carrying gallons of bottled water around — I realized they were avoiding the water in here. The incarcerated women have started buying bottled water from the commissary now too, but we can’t buy enough to avoid the water entirely. We still have to shower, cook and brush our teeth with it.
I was angry, too, at the medical department for what I perceived to be their negligence.
Early detection is so important in treating cancer, but it’s hard in prison when we have little control over our medical choices and have to advocate hard for our health.
Incarcerated men and women deserve the same odds to beat cancer as people on the outside, but a 2022 Yale University study showed that incarceration is linked with a higher mortality rate from cancer, even a year after being released.
The first time I saw Grandma in the bathroom in excruciating pain, I asked her what was wrong. She told me about the heavy bleeding and severe stomach pain she’d had on and off. She said she had seen the facility doctor, but wasn’t given a Pap smear and was told her symptoms were nothing abnormal. Grandma says she went to the medical clinic half a dozen times with the same symptoms for over a year; every time she was told nothing was wrong and was prescribed ibuprofen.
Finally tired of being dismissed and plagued with the constant feeling that something was not right, Grandma called home in May 2022. She asked her family to call the facility regarding her medical treatment. Just a few hours after the call, Grandma was called for a medical examination and given a Pap smear. The Pap smear displayed a polyp, which looked suspicious and was removed for testing. The nurse told Grandma she would have the results in two to three days.
The wait for the results was agonizing for Grandma and the rest of us who deeply care for her. More than two weeks later, she still had received no results. So again, Grandma called her family for help.
Immediately after that call, Grandma was finally summoned to the medical department. She later told me the doctor read her results from the computer screen, saying, “You have stage 4 cervical cancer. I’m so sorry I didn’t catch this earlier.”
A few weeks later, Grandma was transported to a university hospital for the first of many trips for testing and treatment.
Stage 4 cervical cancer is an aggressive cancer which quickly metastasizes. Thankfully, the cancer did not spread into Grandma’s colon, and doctors were able to remove it by performing a full hysterectomy, the same procedure Grandma thought she had had years ago.
Two months after that devastating day in the officer’s bathroom, a smiling Grandma came to update me on her journey toward beating cancer.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“I have good days and bad days, Cresh. Today is a good day. I feel like I am healing,” she said. Her skin was glowing and her smile was infectious.
We owe thanks to the hospital that treated Grandma in the way she deserved: as a human being, a woman and a grandmother fighting for her life. They laid out a treatment plan for Grandma, and she was able to start chemotherapy, which was followed by bouts of radiology treatments, and later something called a vaginal radiation treatment.
“After 17 years of nothing going down there, Cresh, this could be interesting,” she said, joking about the unfamiliar vaginal treatment. We both laughed and I gave her a big hug as I said a quick prayer for her.
Today, Grandma is cancer-free and we hope she stays that way. Hopefully in the very near future we will have a remedy for all cancer types. Until that glorious day, early detection is extremely important. A cancer diagnosis does not have to be a death sentence, even in prison.
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.