Male, female events raise $14,000 for American Cancer Society

By Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer

Photos by Eric Owens, CDCR Photographer

Nearly 1,000 men and women stepped off on a six-hour walk recently, circling tracks at Folsom State Prison (FSP) and Folsom Women’s Facility (FWF) in the name of cancer research.

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Cancer survivors walk the first lap of the Folsom State Prison Relay For Life event.

It was the third year for Relay For Life at FSP and the second at FWF. The event grows each year, and the prison is consistently one of the largest donors to the American Cancer Society.

The average inmate donation is $75, donated by the inmates themselves and from family members. The Folsom events raised $14,000 this year, and when combined with the Folsom Community Relay for Life, $100,000 was raised to fight cancer.

“We come not as inmates and staff, but as a group to support a cause that has affected so many of us,” said inmate Caitlin Churchill, who led the women’s group in prayer before the laps started.

The participants formed teams and planned for months for the events, which included speakers, CDCR officials, music and six hours of walking. Community Relay events take place over the span of 24 hours, but that’s one of the only differences that could be seen in Folsom.

“The big similarity is cancer doesn’t discriminate,” said Ashley Sodergren, senior Relay manager for the American Cancer Society. “We want to educate as many people as possible about preventing cancer.”

To that end, inmate peer educators spent the months leading up to Relay sharing information about the disease, and ways people can stay healthy.

Senior Registered Nurse III Kim Masbad, a staff coordinator of the event, said that in prison, inmates receive treatment comparable to what is available outside. And for many people, she said, a cancer diagnosis might have happened too late, or not at all, had the patient not been incarcerated.

“Here, we get a lot of people who wouldn’t have sought treatment on the street.”

SRN II Malychanh Williams echoed Masbad’s sentiments, sharing that cancer treatment and prevention are a big part of her medical duties at the prison. Preventative screenings like colonoscopies and mammograms are offered, and inmates’ health is monitored closely.

Educating people about cancer is key, Williams said, praising inmate Relay coordinators Kevin Gentry and Brandon Norris – and all involved with Relay – for sharing the message of prevention.

“They’re seeing the reality of cancer and how it affects their fellow inmates and their families,” Williams said.

FSP Warden (A) Lydia Romero praised the inmate and staff organizers of Relay, commenting that everyone present has, in some way, been affected by cancer.

“We know cancer is a deadly disease that doesn’t discriminate, whether I’m a warden or an inmate – it hits us equally.”

James Cardwell and Filemon Mendoza took to the track in honor of Cardwell’s grandfather and Mendoza’s grandmother, who both died at a young age. Cardwell said he has seen cancer affect people as young as 20, and he knows education is the key.

“People like my grandpa, they never knew the effects of smoking,” he said.

Mendoza said he’s happy to donate to the cause, not only because of its benefits to medical research, but also because it’s a positive event that unites inmates in a common goal.

“It’s a good thing, it’s for a good cause,” he said. “This is an epidemic that has been killing a lot of people. Everybody has loved ones they don’t want to lose.”

Both events began with a survivors’ lap, as those who have beaten cancer took a victory lap around the track. One of those walkers was Shirley Williams, who survived a major car wreck in her early 20s only to find out in the emergency room that she had a grapefruit-sized cyst on her ovary.

Once she found out she had stage 3 ovarian cancer, she remembered, she made all the wrong choices. She turned to drugs and pushed her family away, and missed chemotherapy appointments in the process.

She was arrested, completing chemotherapy on time while incarcerated in Orange County, something she attributes to her survival. She said it was a combination of medical science, medical professionals and faith that got her through and

“Since my remission, I’ve gained a new outlook on life,” said Williams, now 14 years cancer-free. “I can see clearly my cure is no coincidence.”

Inmate organizer Gentry said that the work to organize Relay – recruiting teams, scheduling speakers, coordinating educational materials – is worth it to see two-thirds of the prison population circling the track in honor of their loved ones and learning about how to treat and prevent cancer.

“It’s just the most tangible thing I can think of in prison to give back,” he said. “When we ignore it, that’s when cancer is at its strongest. And we can’t fight a battle that we know nothing about.”

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