Cancer Who? celebrates life beyond diagnosis

May 30, 2018 GMT

Local nonprofit Cancer WHO? celebrated three years of supporting people in their battles against cancer with a series of community events May 25 to 27.

Founded and operated by a husband-and-wife team who both had relatives who suffered from the disease, Cancer WHO? is a growing entity that has had an intense impact on the people it considers an extended family.

“I think it’s great celebrating three years. [But] I just appreciate the ride along — from our first year not having any money, barely any support to now where we have AT&T come out and support, I appreciate the growth,” said Al Harris, Cancer WHO? co-founder.

Harris was inspired to start the nonprofit after witnessing his cousin battle breast cancer. Around the same time, his wife, Marjani Harris, lost her stepfather to cancer. Now, one of his cousins is fighting brain cancer.

“It’s a stressful situation but I think seeing the outcome helps with going through the battle,” Al Harris said. “Seeing it through, just being there throughout the entire process, and once you see the glory of beating cancer, it gives you drive to help somebody else. That’s my drive.”

Al works full-time for Cancer WHO? Marjani works part-time, and a few other volunteers work with them. They connect with cancer patients online or through referrals and take on the role of an “extended family” member — accompanying them to chemotherapy, radiation treatments and doctor’s visits; helping find financial resources; and organizing outings, such as spa days or sporting events.

Marjani said they are in the process of “building our ambassador program” to reach more people. She said they support five to eight people a week, and have assisted hundreds of patients all over the country, including people living in Atlanta, California, Florida, Las Vegas, Maryland, New York and Oregon.

“Cancer WHO? is for everybody, anyone going through it,” she said. “We want you to live. It’s not about letting cancer control you [but] living your best life no matter what you’re going through. Smiles are our medicine.”

At the AT&T- and Boom 103.9-sponsored community day on Saturday, hundreds of supporters and survivors gathered at the Shepard Recreation Center to celebrate the organization. The event included a kickball tournament, moon bounce, face painting, free haircuts, free food and music. Black-owned businesses sold children’s books, housewares, clothing and accessories.

On Friday, there was a “Pedal for a Purpose” ride and walk sponsored by Indego; and the weekend concluded on Sunday with a comedy show sponsored by Turae and Punchline Philly.

Marjani said the weekend was designed for survivors, their families and supporters to “take our minds off cancer.” One youth who participated in the kickball tournament was Tristan, a cancer survivor.

“He was diagnosed at 5, in 2014,” said Tristan’s mother, Shawn Simmons. “When my son got diagnosed, somebody posted they were doing a [fundraiser] fish fry for my husband. Al came to the fish fry and bought Tristan a bike. He asked if they could support us. Since then, he’s been to every appointment — four years’ worth.”

Simmons and her husband said the support has been so consistent that Al is like family now. They said it has also lifted a burden, as he can fill in when one of them cannot make appointments or is able to connect with Tristan on difficult days.

“I can be in there and just having a bad day, waiting for the doctors. And Al will come in and he will play with Tristan, where I don’t have to entertain him. [One] ER visit, Tristan wasn’t responsive to the doctors. Al texted some animal things and Tristan loved it, something I wouldn’t have thought of.”

Ali Simmons, Shawn’s husband and Tristan’s father, describes the support as above and beyond.

“He still came when Tristan got his port removed,” he said. “A call would even be a plus, [but] he still came to the appointments.”

Charmagne King-Pratt, Al’s cousin who survived breast cancer, said she knows intimately the importance of what Al, Marjani and their team are doing. Having had her mother by her side while she suffered the disease, she said the fight is much easier when someone is there.

“When you walk through the door to get treatment, you see people — they are in there by themselves. My mom went with me to every treatment,” said King-Pratt. “It wasn’t the same if they had someone going through it with them. That’s what [Cancer WHO?] is doing, they’re going with people while they are going through their treatment. You have more hope. You have more confidence. You’re not alone. You don’t have to do it by yourself.”