'I don't want to die in prison.'
When Lorie Longoria was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer while serving time in the Texas prison system, her first thought was, "Am I still being punished?"
An even harder thought quickly followed: "I don't want to die in prison."
Lorie's cancer resulted in a double mastectomy, chemo and the loss of her hair, and finally reconstructive surgery.
"During my struggles, I was very alone," she admits. "I had a terrible time getting my hair cut when it was falling out. I had so many questions that I didn't know if I was asking the right questions."
DON'T WALK THE JOURNEY ALONE
Lorie often felt alone. Still, she was surrounded by other women at the Carole Young Medical Facility who also faced difficult diagnoses—even cancer, just like her.
Why not start a support group so others don't have to walk this journey alone? she wondered.
She approached Bill Loyd, field director for Prison Fellowship in southeast Texas, to see if he might be able to help her start such a group. Ironically, right after securing permission from the prison to begin the group, Bill also was diagnosed with cancer.
"It's just God's way of showing me that if I'm going to start a cancer support group I need to know what cancer is all about," Bill told his wife when she asked him why he was taking the bad news so well.
Lorie and Bill
TOGETHER IN THE HARD TIMES
On January 16, 2015, the Sisters of Love, Life, and Strength (SOLLS) had their first meeting.
Nadine Eidman, a volunteer from the outside, led the group. A former banker and a breast cancer survivor, Eidman had never dreamed of visiting a prison before, much less co-leading a support group in one. But when Bill asked if she would be willing to help, her own experience with the disease pushed her to say "yes."
When you hear the word 'cancer,' it's heavy. I had the benefit of my family, people who would come with me to listen to what the doctors were saying. These women don't have anybody. It's them and the doctors and this disease. It's a major challenge.
ALL AGES, ALL STAGES
Women of all ages and stages of cancer began showing up on Fridays to receive encouragement for their fight, as well as to offer encouragement to others.
On any given group meeting, there are around 15 attendees. About 50 percent have cancer, and the rest have other diagnoses. They ask questions and share answers.
"Some don't really understand the diagnosis, like what a lymph node is," Eidman explains. "They don't know what to ask and don't know what they've been told. You're in shock."
Together, the women help each other understand what's happening in their bodies during treatment and discuss ways to live healthier even while battling the disease. They pray for each other, read Scripture together, and sometimes even tell jokes. And they help each other learn to trust God in the ups and downs.
"We celebrate when people are doing well and come together when people aren't doing well. And recognize that all of our days are numbered. It's an opportunity to re-focus," Eidman says.
One of the hardest moments over the past year and a half was when a key member of the group passed away.
"She was a beacon and a very happy, encouraging resource to the other women," Eidman says. "And it's hard. It’s really hard."
'Everybody is carrying this pain as I'm carrying it, too.'
But perhaps more than anything, the group has become a family.
Marcela Roman says that she didn't want to attend when a friend first invited her. "I don't want to cry," she explained.
Despite her diagnosis of thyroid cancer, her family wouldn't respond to her letters, and she felt isolated and alone.
Her friend told her she wouldn't have to say anything, just come and listen.
"So we went and I paid attention. I was listening to everybody that was carrying this pain as I'm carrying it too, but they are strong and they encourage each other."
She kept coming and eventually wouldn't miss a Friday.
"They support you as a true family," Roman says.
According to Lorie, that has always been the goal: "I want people to know that even though we are away from our families during this difficult time, God has provided a beautiful family for the incarcerated women in the community of SOLLS."
"Despite the fact that they are incarcerated, they have so much strength and hope," Eidman adds. "They have fear, but they're going to be joyful or kind."
Lorie and her daughter
I have never been a part of something that touched so many lives in a positive way. This group has been an extremely humbling experience. God has allowed me to see his amazing work of taking a very bad situation such as cancer in prison and turning it into something beautiful.