For months, Alabama federal prison officials unjustly delayed breast-cancer treatment for a Surry County woman serving time for drug and gun offenses, a federal lawsuit alleges.
It took eight months before the woman, Angela Michelle Beck, got an appointment for a biopsy, even though a cancer specialist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center said in court papers that Beck should have had a biopsy performed within one to two months after detecting a lump in her breast. Beck didn’t have surgery until two months after the biopsy, and federal prison officials failed to schedule a meeting with an oncologist for follow-up until five months after the surgery, court papers said.
By the time she met with an oncologist for further treatment for cancer in her left breast, Beck had found two lumps in her right breast, according to the lawsuit.
Beck, 47, is serving 13 years and nine months in the Federal Correctional Institute in Aliceville, Ala., and she is not scheduled to be released for another seven years. She pleaded guilty in 2013 to charges of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and possession of firearms in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime. Beck was among 21 people who were indicted on charges of being part of a large-scale methamphetamine operation in Surry County.
Her attorneys with the Winston-Salem law firm Elliot Morgan Parsonage filed the lawsuit in May to force federal prison officials to get Beck the medical care she needs. U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles granted an order requiring federal prison officials to take Beck to doctors’ appointments and to ensure she gets treatment for her breast cancer.
Eagles will preside over a hearing today in U.S. District Court in Greensboro to make sure that federal prison officials have complied with her order and to hear Beck’s motion for a preliminary injunction to ensure that Beck continues to get immediate and urgent care for her breast cancer.
According to court papers, Beck, who has a history of breast cancer in her family, first found a lump in her left breast in August or September 2017 while she was taking a shower at the prison. She immediately notified prison officials, and was examined by a prison doctor on Oct. 16, 2017.
On Dec. 6, 2017, she was examined by a surgeon and was taken to get a mammogram on Dec. 21, 2017. That test found multiple breast masses and cysts. The prison doctor reviewed the mammogram and said Beck needed to have a biopsy, where tissue is extracted and examined.
Eight months would pass before Beck was taken for a biopsy on Aug. 28, 2018. The lawsuit said that, during that time, Beck complained about pain in her left breast.
In court papers, Dr. Karen Winkfield, a cancer specialist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, said a biopsy should be done within one to two months after a lump or mass is detected on a breast. In most cases, she said, surgeons, medical oncologists and radiation oncologists would be consulted to determine a comprehensive treatment plan for a patient.
On Sept. 6, 2018, after a review of the biopsy results, she was given a diagnosis of breast cancer. Even though she was told she needed to have surgery without delay to remove the left breast, nothing happened, and federal prison officials said the delay was because of Hurricane Michael, which hit Alabama that year, the lawsuit alleges.
In October 2018, she wrote the warden, Patricia V. Bradley, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit: “I have been waiting patiently to go and have my breast removed because I have been told numerous times that I am going real soon but it’s been since the end of August and my cancer is in stage 2. I don’t want my cancer to get any worse while I sit here waiting on someone to do what they are supposed to do to help me to get medical treatment ... I am still a human being and I need to get this done before it gets any worse.”
According to court papers, she had a mastectomy of her left breast on Nov. 1, 2018, more than two months after her biopsy was done. Six weeks later, she had a follow-up visit with the surgeon, who told her she needed to meet with an oncologist about further treatment to make sure the cancer doesn’t return.
She didn’t meet with an oncologist until April 3, 2019. That was after she found two lumps in her right breast in January 2019, according to court papers.
Winkfield, the cancer specialist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, said it was “unacceptable and a substantial departure from the standard of care” for Beck to have to wait five months before seeing an oncologist. Because of the wait, the oncologist concluded it would not be beneficial for Beck to undergo chemotherapy and that she would need to have alternative treatments.
It’s not clear in court papers what the status of Beck’s cancer is. Eagles has ordered federal prison officials to make sure certain tests are done regarding Beck’s cancer and that she meet with a surgeon about the lumps detected in her right breast. In court papers, federal prison officials have said they have complied with Eagles’ order.
Prison officials, including the warden, have not specifically denied the allegations in the lawsuit or provided any explanation for the alleged delay in care. Lynne Klauer, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Middle District of North Carolina, which is representing the defendants, did not respond to a phone message requesting comment.
Separately, James B. Craven, another one of Beck’s attorneys, has filed a motion in federal court asking the court to order her release from prison based on her medical condition. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons has denied her request.
According to court papers, federal prison officials denied the request because they said Beck does not meet the requirement for having a terminal illness or having a debilitating medical condition. They also say Beck represents a danger to society based on her conviction of firearms possession.
A federal judge has not ruled on Craven’s motion.
Winkfield said in court papers that, in her opinion, “the above course of action by the prison system in responding to Ms. Beck’s known breast cancer, punctuated by repeated delays in care, was grossly inadequate and more likely than not put Ms. Beck at unnecessary risk for the spread of her disease and ultimately, irreparable harm.”
“Further, there is no medical justification for the above delays which created excessive risks,” Winkfield said.