Back when lung cancer survivor Wendy Ryals still had a house and a job, she dreamed of someday saving enough money to help the homeless. But then she became homeless herself. Ryals had been making minimum wage doing greenhouse work in the agriculture industry before she was laid off. On November 3, 2015, she left her home for the last time. “I was literally out on the streets,” she said.
For the next year, Ryals slept on sidewalks in Colorado Springs until she found a church that allowed her to sleep inside. But the church wasn’t heated and in winter, snow and ice covered the ground. Ryals had tennis shoes, but no boots.
When she could no longer feel her feet, Ryals limped into a homeless shelter for help. Workers there brought her to a clinic next door, where a nurse told her she had frostbite and could not return to the streets, or even the church. She checked into the homeless shelter that day.
One night in the shelter her life took another turn, when Ryals started coughing and coughed up a little blood. She went back to the clinic and the doctor there sent her for x-rays. They showed a large, 10.5 cm mass in her left lung. In February 2017, a biopsy confirmed Ryals had non-small cell lung cancer. More tests showed it had spread to her adrenal gland, kidney, cervix, and 11 lymph nodes.
Ryals says she cried when she heard the news, but not because of the diagnosis itself. It was because she’d finally gotten an interview for a position working with the homeless at another shelter, and the diagnosis meant she was going to miss the interview.
“I went outside and got alone with the Lord,” she said. “I didn't ask him to heal me or deliver me. I asked him for peace. No fireworks went off and the ground didn’t shake, but the most awesome peace filled me from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. I didn't ask why, I just knew that my life was going to change even more so, and I so needed the peace to take each step that was to follow.”
Learning to live
Because of the stage and exact form of Ryals’ cancer, her doctors recommended treatment with Keytruda (pembrolizumab), a type of immunotherapy. It’s a newer medication that targets a protein found in certain types of non-small cell lung cancers, and may shrink some tumors. So far, it’s helping. Scans show her tumors are getting smaller. She is able to afford treatment as well as rent for a small room in a boarding house through Social Security disability programs and Medicaid. A ride service takes her to appointments, unless they’re busy – then she takes the city bus. She now volunteers at a homeless clothes closet and she goes out on the streets to talk to homeless people and give them what help she can.
“I'm still alive, going strong. I will continue this treatment until it stops working,” she said. “I can't help but wonder how many of the homeless have cancer and either don’t know how to get help or don’t have any help available. I don't want anyone to suffer because of this disease.”
Ryals says being diagnosed with lung cancer has changed her perspective on life. “You begin to see things in a whole different way,” she says about her reaction. “It was a rough 18 months on the streets, but when I look back on it, I wouldn’t have missed any of it, because in many ways it prepared me for my diagnosis. All the years up to that moment were in preparation for learning how to live.”
“All the lessons that people have said to you throughout your life come flooding back,” she said. “Your eyes are opened. You see. You hear. When I got the news that you’d have thought would crush me – the truth is – I just learned how to live.”
Ryals says she’s doing fine, but she worries about everybody else. She says, “I wish for one brief moment that young, old, Black, white, rich, poor could come together and stand for one moment in complete agreement that they would fight this fight with everything they’ve got – whether they’re fighting for themselves, someone they love, or someone they don’t even know. I don’t want anybody to be forgotten. This disease doesn’t care who it touches or what status we are. But if we come together as a unit, things happen.”
Today she dreams about helping not just the homeless, but everyone with cancer. “If I were a millionaire and I could do a red-carpet rollout treatment that’s what I would do – rolling it out because you’d be putting it under your feet. Enough is enough.”