ST. GABRIEL, La. (AP)-- Tjianna Kelly's life isn't typical.
She's an inmate at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel.
But the feelings Kelly has struggled with since learning she had cancer are universal. She first learned she should have surgery for cervical cancer in 2004.
"But I was scared," Kelly said.
It wasn't until this year that Kelly found the courage to have the operation.
She found the strength, she said, through the encouragement of members of a cancer support group formed at the women's prison in November 2009.
"I listened to what they went through. It gave me hope," said Kelly, who's doing well.
The group, which usually numbers 15, meets every Tuesday morning in the large gym on the compound, their chairs drawn into a circle.
After Kelly's comments at a recent meeting, group member Gayle Neidhardt smiled and said, "We still have one stronghead amongst us, but we're still working on her" of another member who's afraid of treatment.
"We all try to look after each other," said Neidhardt, who is a survivor of colon cancer and appendicular cancer, a type of bone cancer.
It was Jeanette Dent, recreational director at LCIW, who saw the need for the cancer support group for inmates.
Therapeutic recreation "doesn't just deal with the physical," Dent said.
She contacted Cancer Services of Greater Baton Rouge for assistance.
The organization provides educational materials, and Esther Sachse, director of programs for Cancer Services, monthly co-facilitates the group with Dent.
"They are extremely supportive of each other," said Sachse of the members.
The cancer survivors in the group are in various stages of dealing with cancer diagnosis, treatment or recovery.
"Once you're diagnosed, you're considered a cancer survivor," Sachse said.
The inmates are transported offsite to Earl K. Long Medical Center for medical treatment and also receive care at the prison infirmary, Sachse said.
"Everybody here knows what you're going through. We're all going through the same thing," group member Mary Cummings said. Cummings has faced both breast cancer and cervical cancer.
"It gives you strength. You know you're not alone," said member Emily Clement, who has battled cancer of the lining of the uterus.
"It's a little different for us as inmates, because when we have surgery and treatment, we're not allowed any visitors," Neidhardt said.
There are no family or friends to fuss over the patient, she said.
"We are family," she said of her fellow inmates.
Judith Walters said that after she was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2004, she saw that other inmates avoided her.
It hurt, she said.
She later learned from Cancer Services literature that it was happening because the others didn't know what to say to her.
"I didn't know how to deal with it, either," she said.
Walters came through surgery to have a lung removed and has subsequently been diagnosed with cancer of the spine. She's awaiting surgery for that, she said.
"It would be so easy to just lay down and stay there. I get tired of the pain," Walters said.
The other women in the group praised her spirit and strength.
"If you seek pity, pity will kill you," Walters said.
"I can view this as something devastating to my life or I can use it to help other people," Melanie Jubb, a breast cancer survivor, said.
She said she prefers the latter choice.
"That's why I come every Tuesday, whether I feel like it or not," Jubb said.
At the end of the group session on June 15, Sachse spoke about relaxation techniques _ the women practiced one of them, relaxing different muscle groups _ then asked them what information they'd like to learn about the next time she visited.
They asked for information on colon cancer and on lymphedema, an accumulation of lymphatic fluid that can occur in the arms after breast cancer surgery.
One of the women also wanted information on tumor markers, molecules in blood or tissue that can be measured and are associated with cancer, according to several medical websites.
"The women have a thirst for knowledge," Sachse said, before the meeting.
Dent said that in earlier group meetings, the women have drawn pictures illustrating how they felt when they were first diagnosed with cancer; they've also written about their feelings.
The women displayed their work earlier this month, June 8, at the prison's first "Celebration of Life" event, held in honor of National Cancer Survivors' Day.
The event, sponsored by Cancer Services of Greater Baton Rouge, featured a bagpipe-led procession of the cancer survivors, poetry and information on cancer.
Guest speaker was Julia B. Moore, a cancer survivor in her 80s and a founding member of Sisters Supporting Sisters, the Baton Rouge affiliate chapter of Sisters Network, a national organization for African-American breast cancer survivors.
The cancer survivors at LCIW were aided in their presentation by the prison's choir and liturgical dance group.
Inmates had practiced for the event since January, Dent said. The idea was to "make the entire compound aware of cancer," Dent said.
"It was an opportunity to celebrate the fact we're all still here," Jubb said.