Hit hard by cancer, Philly family fights back with support, new community center

Listen 3:15
Al Harris, left, and Marjani 'MJ' Harris, right, stand outside the new CancerWho? community center in the Port Richmond neighborhood. (Trenae Nuri/WHYY News)

Al Harris, left, and Marjani 'MJ' Harris, right, stand outside the new CancerWho? community center in the Port Richmond neighborhood. (Trenae Nuri/WHYY News)

Nearly eight years ago, Al and Marjani “MJ” Harris received some devastating news – Al’s older cousin was diagnosed with stage-4 breast cancer, Al’s younger cousin had brain cancer, and MJ’s stepfather was diagnosed with colon cancer.

It was a hard time for their family.

“It’s a lot,” MJ said. “It’s so much, mentally draining, stressful, financial – a lot of different things. And to be firsthand with that in my household, see the whole process take place … for me, that was one of the main reasons I wanted to do something.”

The couple soon traveled to medical appointments with their family members and saw that many others with cancer were alone.

“It was crazy and shocking to me that we have all these big organizations, all these big companies, and something as little as support … like sitting in chemo or sitting waiting for radiation was not happening inside a hospital,” Al said.

For many cancer patients, having someone by their side during chemotherapy treatments and other medical appointments is a godsend.

So in 2013, the Harrises launched Cancer Who? – a nonprofit to support cancer patients. In the beginning, Al traveled to about three hospitals per day, six days a week. And that was before working an eight-hour shift as a health-care professional who directly supports those with autism and developmental disabilities.  

“What kept happening was I would be at an appointment, and I would have to leave early,” Al said. “So, after time was going on, I would get frustrated, and I would see it on the family’s face –  whoever I was supporting, it would be frustrating.”

Al decided to quit his job and support cancer patients full time.

Over the last six years, Cancer Who? has helped more than 100 patients – men, women and children from Pennsylvania and Delaware to Mississippi and California. Al and his team of volunteers go to chemo appointments in hospitals, help explain treatment options, do home visits, video chat or simply play video games.

“We’re not talking to the families like we’re a hospital, all technically, because they get enough of that,” MJ said. “We’re there to not only be the liaison, trying to break some stuff down in layman’s terms, but as a family.”

Next month, Cancer Who? will open a community center in the Port Richmond neighborhood. The group will host group therapy sessions for caretakers and grieving family members and tutoring for children.  

The tutoring program will be named the Dr. Dolores King Educational Program – in honor of MJ’s grandmother who recently died from brain cancer. 

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.