High school sweethearts open first black-owned cancer nonprofit aimed at bringing normalcy to patients' lives

High school sweethearts and longtime couple Marjani and Al Harris are all too familiar with the emotional toll that cancer can take on a family. After witnessing three members of their own battle three different types of cancer simultaneously, they noticed a disconnect between medical treatments and a patient’s holistic care.

So this year, they opened the first black-owned non-profit cancer center in Philadelphia, one aimed at taking patients mind’s off of cancer.

The idea for their center, called “Cancer Who?” started out as a community event called “Cancer Who? Weekend,” which the couple began hosting in Philadelphia. Their goal — through the event and the center — is focused on providing a sense of community and normalcy to patients.

In an interview with Yahoo Lifestyle, Al explains that their mission is to put more emphasis on the person and less on the disease. “We don’t talk about cancer at all, unless we’re at a chemo appointment,” he says to Yahoo Lifestyle. “We talk about anything but cancer.”

Their facility offers services and programs including family game nights, spa days and yoga classes — all at no cost. Al tells Yahoo Lifestyle that an important component of the center is making sure “that nobody has to worry about paying” to receive assistance. In order to make this a reality, Al says he has had to quit his job and give Cancer Who his undivided attention.

But the reward is great. “Watching people smile is my favorite part,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Personally understanding the hardships that fighting cancer entails, Al tells Yahoo that, “being able to get their minds off of cancer is the best part.”

Since opening, Al tells Yahoo Lifestyle that the couple has helped over 280 families and has hosted numerous “Cancer Who parties,” celebrating a survivor’s chance to ring the bell — symbolizing the end of their battle with cancer. The couple continues to support their community by accompanying patients during treatments and advocating for them whenever necessary. “If there's someone that can sit there with you through your four-hour process to try to make it feel like you're only there for an hour, I think that's some good work," Al told 6ABC.

Along with running the center, Marjani and Al are raising three young children — a 7-year-old, 2-year-old, and 9-month old — some of whom are involved in Cancer Who themselves. “My oldest goes to chemo visits with us,” Al says, “He knows all of the kids we support. Everyone involved is just one, big extended family.”

Dominique Mundy, a two-time cancer survivor who’s celebrating her “cancerversary” (another year in remission) told ABC 6 that the center has supported her immensely. "It's cool to have your friends and family say ‘I'm praying for you,’ but when you have 15 strangers saying ‘I'm praying for you’ it's kind of like 'Oh yeah, I'm doing this for them, I'm doing it for everybody!" she says. “You feel like a champion."

Al says Cancer Who’s goal, after Philadelphia, is to expand nationwide. “We feel like this is something that’s needed more than wanted,” he says. According to the American Cancer Society, black Americans are disproportionately impacted by cancer, with the “highest death rate and shortest survival of any racial and ethnic group in the US for most cancers.”

Together, Cancer Who hopes to empower the black community to move mountains regardless of the obstacles they may encounter. Al says, “We feel proud that we can show our children and the rest of our culture that you can always be the first at something even when you feel like you are in last place.”

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