“Mia, the doctor needs to see you right away– it’s about your blood work,” a receptionist spoke authoritatively, the words hitting my ear like a freight train.
“This man has given my HIV,” I immediately thought to myself. My husband of four years was a known philanderer and by then, I could not even pretend to be naive to that fact. The numbers in his pocket told me the truth, when he only told me lies. So did the women he bought things– like expensive bags, jewelry and purses– just to use them once and discard them. They were as disposable as the income he spent on them, acquired through the only trade his family passed down to him: hustling. And I was being hustled everyday, told that he loved me while risking my health for his addiction to sex.
“I have HIV?” I asked the doctor.
“No, it’s cervical cancer,” he responded. The doctor assured me that we caught it early enough that treatment would almost certainly work. I breathed a sigh of relief, not knowing that my battle with the disease would wreak havoc on my body, not once, twice but three times over the course of the next decade. I left that visit knowing that I would survive, but not knowing that survival would eventually become dependent on my incarceration in a federal prison years later. The mystery of why, by the age of 35, I was a black woman branded a cancer survivor, a domestic abuse victim and ex-felon would only be revealed to me when I found my way back to God.
I was raised in faith. Both my mother and father played active roles in our local parish– my father was the preacher’s stuart and my mom was the lead deacon. I spent the majority of my childhood doing homework, seated in the pews as my younger sister ran about, giggling and laughing. We practically lived in the church, so this proximity made it impossible for me to avoid the constant gossip that was meant solely for the ears of the preacher, but somehow always made an audience with my mother and the other members of the church.
I would often overhear, “Mrs. Johnson is cheating on her husband,” or, “Mrs. Wilson’s daughter is too fast,” as the news bounced from one set of lips to the next. So I intimately knew that while the church could be a place of worship, where one can express their love and devotion, it could also be a place of constant scrutiny for its members. That lesson was solidified when, at 17 years old, I was raped by a serial rapist who would also go on to victimize 9 other women. All eyes and ears were on me as my clothes became more loosely fitted and baggy: I became the only thing worth discussing. Though the circumstances of my pregnancy where unknown to them, one thing was: that I was no longer pure and good in the eyes of church. I was a pariah and one of the oldest church members– a sickly woman with discerning, intrusive eyes — made that known to all when she ripped open the large coat I wore to hide my belly that had grown round and full with my shame.
At the age of 18, I ran from the church into the arms of my husband. He reached out to me with an embrace that felt protective and non judgemental. He filled my soul with flattery and gifts. I became the most beautiful woman in the world, my baby the apple of his eye. With him, I imagined the beautiful family we could build, where my daughter and me would be secure and protected. When I returned to my old neighborhood and saw members of the church that once shunned me, I held my head high as I rolled past them in my newly gifted Mercedes. My life was like a rap video with the cars, drugs and jewelry to match. I began to think that I was better than other people. I didn’t really think it, but that’s what I wanted them to think. After all, their judgmental stares were satisfied by the appearance that I was “doing well”. My mother and father, on the other hand, were not as easily fooled by appearances.
“We want you and the baby to live with us,” they attempted, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. I was too caught up listening to the looped words of the man I married:
You are 18. You are a mom. You are free.
I desperately wanted to be free. Free from the hurt, disappointment and pain. But that freedom came with a price.
Within months of our marriage, he began to cheat. My beautiful eyes, became too big, my beautiful, curvy figure became fat. His hands left their marks on my face, which I hid behind the designer sunglasses he would buy for me as a gifts to prove he was sorry. When I walked into the salon for the weekly appointments to make sure I “looked good for him”, women approached me to tell me what he bought for them or when they had sex only a few days earlier. In time, I learned I was to pay for this freedom with my dignity. Even, possibly, with my health. I refused to turn back to my family and prove them right– show them that I did mess up. And when I sought support from his mother after he beat me so bad I could barely move, she condescendingly said,
“Oh, I’m sooo sorry he did that to you, but that’s just what men do.”
So when the doctor said the words “cervical cancer” to me, it was actually a relief that my own body had turned on itself. My disease was not the making of the man I once loved, who became my tormentor. Not only could I fight it, but I could beat it. And I did. I endured chemo, watched as my hair fell out and weight shed from my body. By the time my body was free of cancer, the first time, I finally found the courage to end the relationship that threatened my life like a cancer for five years. I left my husband when I found out he had a baby with another woman and I did not look back.
However, I could not leave the life that his drug-dealing had afforded me– my only protection from scrutiny, all of the nice things that filled the void created by years of trauma. I needed the cars, the designer shades to hide behind, the jeans to make me feel good about my body, but I was working a normal 9-5 job as an acquisition assistant. For every contract I brought into the company, I received 1% of the amount raised. On the day my daughter called to tell me that the lights and water were shut off and I had no money to even pay those bills, I decided to change that percentage from a 1 to a 10 and immediately, my money woes disappeared. I did that for a year until it eventually caught up to me.
“If not from drugs, where did you get the money?” A DA questioned, after I was brought in as a suspect in a large drug bust which included my husband.
“Tell them,” my lawyer urged. I was not a drug dealer, but I was a thief. I confessed to my crimes and did three years behind bars.
I left prison ready to start a new life, to finally be free. I tried my best to find work that could support myself and my daughter and tried to live a quiet, “normal” life. I also received counseling and finally felt that my emotional scars were being tended to, healed.
Then, a few months later, I was told the cancer had returned.
Unlike the first time, this time the diagnosis was not a relief. The treatments ravished my body, left me feeling weak and helpless and took my ovaries. I went into remission, but a few months later the cancer returned and this time, doctors told me I was terminal. A month after I received my diagnosis, I was told I would have to return to federal prison– the judge had made a mistake with my sentencing, so I had not completely finished my sentence at all. I was crushed under the weight of a life and a body that I seemed to have no control over.
I was incarcerated when I was finally put on hospice care. I was supposed to accept that faith. I was supposed to die in prison. Yet, somehow, I could not bring myself to imagine that would be the end for me.
I researched treatment options with all of my free time, while incarcerated. Holistic remedies. Eastern medicine. Nutrition experiments. Then, I stumbled upon a trial for a treatment called Avastin. The trial was nearly half of a million dollars, which I most certainly would not had been able to afford, had I not been incarcerated. As an inmate, I was guaranteed treatment. My incarceration could save my life.
The day of my first treatment, my legs and arms were shackled to the bed. When the doctor injected the chemo into my body, it felt like I had received a shot of lava and it was running through my body, burning everything in reach.
“I can’t do this by myself,” I cried out and begged for the treatments to stop. I preferred to die than feel that amount of pain.
The nurse took my hand and prayed with me. Eventually, I lowered my head and joined her. It was the first time I had prayed in nearly two decades. The prayer got me through the treatment, but while I recovered in my room, I was an angry, emotional wreck. I had no time or space to myself. A guard and a nurse stood nearby on duty every moment. I screamed at them. Hurled epithets in their direction.
“Just turn on the tv and enjoy a show,” the guard urged me, trying to settle me like a tantrum-throwing toddler. The screen burst with energy and a picture of a man in a suit, addressing a large crowd popped up.
“I know you are feeling alone,” he said. “That cancer diagnosis you’ve gotten, god is going to take care of that. Your legal situation. God is going to take care of that.”
Everyone in the room was shocked. It was as if Joel Olsteen– the man on the screen– was speaking directly to me. In that moment, I felt an overwhelming sense of calm. I was not doing this all by myself. There was someone or something looking out for me. My head fell and as tears streamed down my face, I gave thanks to the god that had not turned his back on me, despite all of my weakness, despite my sickness, despite my flaws.
Within a few months, I was released when Eric Holder and Congress revised the nation’s compassionate release legislation and it was deemed inhumane to imprison a person with a terminal illness. I was released and it just so happened that the treatment worked, so my body was free from cancer. For the first time in my adult life, I had my freedom. I was no longer shackled to an abusive partner, or a lengthy sentence. No longer chained to the things I used to avoid confronting my pain. No longer restrained from having a loving, healthy relationship with God that was stolen from me the moment that women put my hurt on display in the church years earlier.
I left prison a woman finally free to walk the path God long laid out for me.
Mia Wright is the founder of We Can-Cer Vive, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting WOC who are battling with cancer.