Philly man wants no one to fight cancer alone

Cancer patient Zahir Berry, 7, meets Al Harris, who founded "Cancer Who?" as an organization to support those like Zahir who are dealing with cancer and its treatments. Some are children, some are adults.

Although Christmas is weeks away, Al Harris slushed through rain-slicked and traffic-choked Philadelphia streets the other day, delivering cheer, comfort, and gifts at every stop.

First, he landed at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children to visit Zahir Berry, who is 7. The Germantown boy had fallen ill at school last year, stricken by an ailment with a name nearly as long as he is tall.

The boy's grandmother, Marlene Berry, 64, fumbled with her smartphone to pull up the exact name. "Here it is," she said, chuckling, after nearly a minute of searching: atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor.

Zahir has an aggressive brain tumor.

Harris presented the boy with an air-hockey game before taking him to the hospital cafeteria for a ham-and-cheese breakfast sandwich. Together they played on a computer tablet while waiting for Zahir to have his eyes checked.

For about an hour, Harris stayed with Zahir and his grandmother before moving on, a tall, stocky figure wearing a baseball cap, T-shirt, hoodie, and sweatpants - all bearing defiant words in Day-Glo colors: "Cancer Who?"

In a city and country served by scores of nonprofits, chances are you've never heard of Cancer Who? It's only about four years old. There's no budget. No paid staff. Essentially, the organization is Al Harris and a handful of his relatives who volunteer time, boosting the morale of cancer patients.

Social media and word of mouth are how those in need learn of Cancer Who?, whose volunteers accompany patients to chemo and radiation appointments and doctor checkups. The organization is supporting more than 50 patients right now.

Often, it's just Harris making the rounds and staying in touch by phone and text messages. The West Philadelphia man has been doing this full time since September, after leaving the nonprofit Special People in Northeast, where he worked as a direct support specialist, caring for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

"My job basically was, like, we understand what you got going on, we love it and we support it, but either you're going to do that or you're going to be committed to us," Harris said, explaining why he quit. "It was no question. But it's scary."

He earns a little money - he estimates no more than $180 a week - by selling sportswear bearing the Cancer Who? logo, and spends it on parking, gas, and gifts for those he visits. He's planning to take college courses in running a nonprofit.

But for now, there's no paycheck to cover expenses associated with Cancer Who?, said Harris, who is 29, married, and the father of a 4-year-old son, with a second child on the way.

After making his rounds at St. Christopher's last week, Harris stopped at the Northeast Philadelphia home of a cousin, Sylvia King, 66, who had sewn two pillows bearing the "Cancer Who?" name. Harris gives them as gifts.

He spent lunch hour with Darounda Nichols - Ms. D - at Cedar Park Cafe on Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia. Harris and Nichols, 51, laughed and bounced from the latest travails of mixed martial artist Conor McGregor to their enjoyment of the film Birth of a Nation to Nichols' salmon-fried rice and culinary chops.

The retired caterer's mood turned downward only when he spoke of the colon cancer that's spread to her lungs and liver. She reached for the napkin dispenser, dabbed her eyes, and Harris threw an arm around her shoulders.

After dropping Nichols off at her Pemberton Street home, Harris presented her with a pair of house slippers, given that cancer has often kept her from going outside.

"Ms. D is in the house 24/7," he said as he drove on to the next stop.

A series of cancer diagnoses in his family spurred Harris to create Cancer Who? A cousin survived stage-4 breast cancer. His wife's stepfather died from colon cancer. Family and friends surrounded the cousin during the battle. The stepfather spent much of his days alone.

"My main goal is to help as many people as I can, to try to put some smiles on some faces," Harris said. "To me, that's the best medicine."

His mother, Sylvia Robinson, said that while all of his relatives stand behind Cancer Who?, they're worried about how Harris will support his growing family.

During a visit to her South Philadelphia home, Harris tried to ease her worries, noting that he's working on building Cancer Who? into a self-sustaining nonprofit.

"You can have a passion and go for it, but you also have to provide," said his mother, who is 61, and a retired city corrections officer. "We've had this conversation several times."

She said she is proud of her son and his faith in what he believes in. "But faith don't pay no bills, and it's not going to feed no bellies."

Cousin Sylvia King calls his work "a darn good thing." Five years ago, her daughter Charmagne King Pratt was diagnosed with stage-4 cancer at age 32. She's cancer-free now.

"I've never had cancer, but I've been sick and in the hospital, and there ain't nothing like being sick and feeling sorry for yourself and nobody's coming to see you," King said.

The ophthalmology waiting room at St. Christopher's Hospital was rapidly filling with mothers pushing strollers, toddlers in tow, as Zahir Berry waited for his eye appointment, one of many checkups related to the two brain tumor surgeries he's endured.

"They removed most of it; they still couldn't get it all . . . ," said his grandmother, Marlene, who quit her day-care job to look after Zahir full time. "We're just hoping and praying that it doesn't grow again."

Harris, she said, has been a great help. "It's truly a blessing. It means the world to us. It relieves some of the stress that we have. I thank God for him."

Nichols had similar sentiments. Although her family is large, she called Harris' presence invaluable.

"He's been like a little godsend to me," Nichols said, shaking her head. "Anything that I could possibly need done, he's willing and always there. Al is at every chemo appointment. He's there sometimes even before I'm there, showing up with flowers. He and his wife stop by my house just to see how I'm doing. He calls three, four times a week, just to say, 'Hi, you OK? You need anything?' "

Harris' last stop of the day was to catch up with Pearl Ben-Gadson, 54, at the Starbucks at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where she was successfully treated for liposarcoma.

"He's always there. He's been a godsend," said Ben-Gadson, an executive assistant at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

With a clean bill of health she's begun pursuing lifelong dreams, including recently buying a sports car and a new house in Smyrna, Del.

The widow and mother of two adult sons also has a dream for Cancer Who?

"I want everyone to know about Cancer Who? - who Alexander is, what his mission is. . . . It should be a household name."

deanm@phillynews.com

215-854-4172@mensahdean