Did cancer hats go too far?

DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Makia Underwood (from left), her sister Zakia Clark and their uncle Curran Underwood wear their anti-cancer gear yesterday in Philadelphia. King of Prussia Mall security took offense to the hats Sunday.
DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Makia Underwood (from left), her sister Zakia Clark and their uncle Curran Underwood wear their anti-cancer gear yesterday in Philadelphia. King of Prussia Mall security took offense to the hats Sunday.
Posted: May 23, 2013

JUST HOURS before dawn on May 14, Jackie Underwood's three daughters held her in their arms as the cancer stole the last breath from her broken body.

For many days before, and almost every day since, her children - Makia Underwood, 32, Zakia Clark, 29, and Tasha Clark, 27 - have worn hats and shirts that read "F--- CANCER," with the "C" in "F---" replaced by a breast-cancer-awareness ribbon.

"That's how we feel. It took our mom away. It's a demon. It's the devil," Zakia Clark said. "There are no other words you can use to explain how you feel. You want cancer to get cancer and die."

Zakia and Tasha Clark were wearing their black-and-pink "F--- CANCER" hats Sunday when the three sisters went to King of Prussia Mall with a group of friends and relatives to pick out a dress for Zakia's 9-year-old daughter to wear to her grandmother's funeral today.

The group shopped for 2 1/2 hours, then split up, and Zakia and Tasha, Zakia's daughter, an adult female friend and two girls younger than 5 grabbed something to eat from Master Wok at the mall's upper-level food court.

The ladies had just sat down when a security guard approached them and, without a greeting, ordered: " 'Take your hats off,' " Zakia said.

Zakia took hers off, but Tasha, who once worked at the mall, told the guard she wanted to see something in writing.

It was almost as if Tasha were channeling their mother's strong spirit, Zakia said, and it inspired her to put her own hat back on.

"He said, 'Since you don't want to take your hat off, you can leave my mall,' " Zakia recalled. "He stood there while we ate and threatened to call the cops."

Out of nowhere, Zakia said, seven more guards surrounded them.

"I was very embarrassed," she said. "My daughter was so scared she was crying."

As the group was escorted to the mall office, Makia called and met up with them.

"I couldn't believe they were acting like they were going to arrest my sisters," she said.

Once they got to the office, the women were met by an Upper Merion Township police officer, who had been called to the mall by security guards.

"The officer said, 'I find it offensive that you even have that hat that says 'F--- CANCER,' " Zakia said. "He said, 'It's their mall, they want you out, you have to get out.' "

The women were escorted out, and two security cars were waiting for them at their car just to make sure they left, Zakia said.

"I just wanted to tell them the whole story," Makia said of the guards. "I wanted to tell them a monster came into our house, got into my mother and we had to watch that until the day it took her, so don't tell me it's offensive to say, 'F--- CANCER.' "

Jackie Underwood was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. She had a breast removed, but refused chemotherapy or radiation, Makia said.

"She said, 'I'm going to be fine,' " Makia recalled.

And she was - for seven years.

But in 2011, Jackie called Makia and said her breast was hurting and she would go for chemo.

Makia, a hairdresser who owns Hair Trance boutique on 22nd Street near Allegheny Avenue in Tioga, shaved her mother's head and went to treatments with her.

On Labor Day weekend 2012, Jackie began an eerie, uncontrollable laugh. The cancer had spread to her brain.

"I took her to the emergency room and they said there were all these tumors floating around," Makia said.

In October, doctors told the women that their mother had three months to live.

Instead of spending those months in a hospital, she was cared for by her daughters in her Northeast Philadelphia home.

Makia closed her salon and had her customers come to her mother's house so she could take care of her during the day.

Zakia and Tasha would relieve her when they got out of work.

The women bathed their mother, fed her and changed her diapers, just as she had done for them many years earlier.

"It was gruesome to watch," Makia said. "When I watch monster movies, that's the image I have of cancer - the zombie movie or the movie when Will Smith was the only person left alive. That's what the clinics look like."

Toward the end, Makia watched the cancer spread over her mother like a plague. In the last two weeks, it went to her throat and lungs and she couldn't talk anymore.

About 3 a.m. May 14, Makia watched her mother's breathing slow.

"I called my sisters downstairs and said, 'Death is coming,' " she said. "And it came, and that was that."

Jackie Underwood was 51.

One of Makia's clients who went to her mother's house after she closed her shop was Tiffany Wade, a registered nurse.

Wade, 29, has watched the effects of cancer on patients for years, but was particularly moved by Jackie's plight and her daughters' anguish.

"Your hairdresser is your counselor," Wade said. "She was in so much pain."

Although Jackie had health insurance from her job at the post office, Wade wanted to do something to help offset the cost of related expenses for the family.

So Wade decided to make the "F--- CANCER" clothing. She estimates that she has sold 200 items and said the money she has raised has gone to help 11 families dealing with cancer.

"When you watch your mother turn from a super-strong woman to a woman who can't walk, can't talk, can't breathe, you get so frustrated," Wade said. "You really feel like, 'F--- CANCER.' That's how you feel in your heart."

Wade said the sisters' experience at the mall was a first.

"I felt so bad they had to be the family to get thrown out," she said. "What's the odds that the one I started it for gets thrown out of the mall?"

After the Daily News began looking into the incident, Les Morris, spokesman for Simon Property Group in Indianapolis, which owns King of Prussia Mall, called Zakia yesterday to apologize.

Zakia said Morris was sincere and even asked for her mother's name and inquired about her battle with cancer.

"Certainly this could have been handled in a much more empathic and sensitive manner," Morris told the People Paper. "We're very sorry about her loss and wanted to apologize for the way her party was treated."

Morris said it's important for the mall to be "flexible."

"I do think this is an entirely different situation than a 16-year-old kid with a swear word on his T-shirt cruising the mall," he said. "We need to be empathic, sympathetic, and listen and make sure that we're approaching each situation as it comes up."

To express their displeasure with the way they were treated, the sisters and Wade had planned a protest for 7 p.m. tomorrow at the mall entrance near Nordstrom, Zakia said.

The event will go on as scheduled, and they will wear their "F--- CANCER" hats and shirts, she said. But in light of the apology, it will be more of an awareness rally against cancer.

The sisters won't be wearing those shirts and hats today.

This morning, at their mother's funeral at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in East Mount Airy, they will wear white, as their mother did to every funeral.

Afterward, Jacqueline Denise Underwood will be laid to rest a few blocks away in Chelten Hills Cemetery.

For those who survive, only time can heal the pain.

"I'm not mad at God," Makia said yesterday. "But the picture of my mother I was left with is beyond 'F--- CANCER.' "


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