How I Survived Cancer in Prison

By Johnnetha S. Hawthorne

From PHN Issue 43, Summer 2020

My name is Johnnetha S. Hawthorne, and I have had cancer five times in the course of my life. My last bout with cancer was in 2017, while I was incarcerated. This is my story of discovering I had cancer, what helped me through that extremely hard time, and how I survived with help from loved ones. I hope my story encourages others to find their strength and know they can make it and will if they just keep going.

My journey with breast cancer began on May 28, 2017, when I discovered a lump on my right breast while showering. My first reaction was sheer panic. I touched the area repeatedly in disbelief. I met with the nurse and asked her to examine me. She did and was as terrified as I was. I told her about my cancer history, and she immediately contacted the head of the medical department.

The first week of June, I was scheduled for a mammogram and ultrasound. I met with the head of the medical department and was then scheduled for a video visit. I knew there would be numerous medical trips to uncover the truth about the lump, but I was not prepared for the outcome. Having had cancer before doesn’t make it easier, it just means I’m more informed. Several trips later, in September, I underwent surgery to have a port put in the side of my chest. That week I received my first treatment.

In December, my doctor suggested I take control of the emotions surrounding my hair loss by shaving it. I called the barber for my cottage, and she came and shaved my head. I remember the tears flowing easily. I was in prison and had no one to truly be there for me. I felt alone, without support from anyone besides the two doctors there—one on the grounds compound, and the head of the medical department. The woman I lived with was not especially supportive. The five day officer was not especially kind or compassionate toward me or anyone who attempted to help me. My faith was shattered, and the tears seemed to never end.

For six months, I received heavy doses of chemotherapy. I had a hard time getting head scarves. In June, the prison system had changed their attire from khaki to orange, so I had to get an orange scarf as well as a khaki one for going out to appointments. The day before my first chemo trip, the sergeant sent an officer to deliver the khaki scarf to me, and the housekeeping department gave me two white
handkerchiefs. The warden and my mother discussed my condition and situation on a regular basis. I rode in the wheelchair and cruiser vehicles, no longer the paddy wagon. The warden also sent out memos notifying the staff of my right to wear scarves, because officers were complaining about it. I needed transportation to get around the grounds compound, because the chemotherapy interfered with my ability to walk. I couldn’t have the alternative to the patch that administers medicine the day after my chemo treatment because, as an inmate, I can’t have needles, so I had to visit the clinic 10 days after my treatment. That medication also disabled me and caused so much muscle pain. The pain was nearly unbearable, and the entire ordeal was depressing because I was not able to eat or keep anything down. Everything I ate had no taste, and food in prison doesn’t have the nutritional value one with my condition
required. I only had Jesus, and He helped me through. I stayed in my room all the time and only came out at night when the other women were in their rooms.

The chemotherapy was so potent it caused me to lose control of my bodily functions and lose my hair for the third time. I had to deal with people spreading rumors that I was faking this illness and there was nothing wrong with me. I had to keep pushing, because I felt that God allowed me this experience for a reason, so I kept going—and going is what I did. My family couldn’t be there for me, which was more painful than the daily physical pain. My mom was hurting most, because she couldn’t nurse me and take care of me. She had to rely on my peers and those who had authority over me. Altogether, I had a year
of chemotherapy, then two months of radiation.

I’m thankful for everyone I love who prayed for me and was there for me throughout this journey. I’m now part of an amazing, supportive, surviving, and courageous community of cancer survivors that I know will receive me well, as I will receive them. The experience gave me the will to keep living and thriving. I know good will come from my experience and pray what I have gone through will encourage and inspire someone who feels they have no one to lean on and find support in. I want to be that person, a sort of beacon of hope.

May this story speak to those who need to hear from people who have endured such a horrible condition and have come out on the other side stronger, more inspired, and ready to help others fight their battles with cancer and any disease they may have.

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