March 4, 2010

Cancer survivor: Access to care difference between life and death

— BUCKFIELD — This month, I celebrate 20 years of remission from cancer. I call the anniversary my ''re-birthday'' because I got my second chance at life and I can't help thinking how lucky I am to be here.

In 1989, I was a brand-new mom and my daughter, Sarah, was only 3 weeks old when I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma.

I've had quite the battle in 20 years -- 17 biopsies and surgeries, 4,500 rads of radiation, nine tattoos, 90 cancer treatments, countless torturous procedures in the sub-basement of Central Maine Medical Center involving lead-encased syringes and stockades (yes, stockades!), hundreds of chest X-rays and mammograms, several months in the hospital, three more rounds with cancer and nearly $1 million in medical expenses.

Not so much when I think about what it bought -- the ability to raise my own children. For this, I have been thankful every single day for 20 years.

Today, I am thinking of every young mother who never even had a chance. Who doesn't have insurance or a million dollars in the bank to pay for her survival. Who isn't as lucky or as privileged as I am. Who did not raise her own children.

Today, a young mother will feel a lump, but she will ignore it because she simply cannot afford it. It is not right. Her children deserve their mother as much as mine do.

As far as I am concerned, surviving cancer or any serious illness really comes down one basic thing: access to affordable health care. It is true that family support, prayers and a good attitude all matter. But without a protocol from Dana Farber and access to the best oncologists, surgeons, hospitals, pharmacies and cancer treatments here in Maine, I would be dead.

So, today I feel pretty lucky. Right out of college, I was lucky enough to land a job teaching. I only made $12,500 that first year, but I had joined an elite group -- the Maine Education Association -- and I was afforded the best health care insurance in the state.

What I thought would be my maternity leave turned into six months of cancer treatment and I was lucky enough to afford and receive treatments that would save my life.

Mary Lou Vallerand was not as lucky. She and I graduated from high school together. Mary Lou was always so full of life, so funny, so smart, so athletic. Mary Lou lost her cancer battle on June 15, 1995, simply because she had no health insurance, so she did not receive the medical attention she needed until it was too late.

She lost her battle needlessly, as her cancer was 100 percent curable if treated in time. The tremendously overwhelming survivor's guilt and grief I felt at her funeral is still palpable today.

Mary Lou's and my cancer stories are interwoven. One is a cause for celebration; the other is tragic. And the only thing that separated us was access to health care.

Access to health care should not be a privilege or a matter of luck. It should be a basic right. The system is broken.

The United States is a great country with the best medical facilities and doctors in the world. But according the World Health Organization, the United States ranks 37th in health care after places like Costa Rica and Dominica and Chile. This should make us all sick. How great is the best if it is only available to the lucky ones who have health insurance or the financial status to afford care? It is within our power to fix the health care crisis. It is not about socialism. It's about access.

It is inhumane that some of us get the best care and others get none. I don't even get why we are fighting about this.

Call it survivor guilt, but for my ''re-birthday wish,'' I would only hope that all of us have the same chance I was given 20 years ago. If you have received what I have received -- a second chance at life -- then I hope you will consider writing a letter, too.

We are the lucky ones, and fighting for access is the least we can do.

— Special to the Press HeraldSurviving cancer or any serious illness really comes down one basic thing: access to affordable health care. It is true that family support, prayers and a good attitude all matter. But without a protocol from Dana Farber and access to the best oncologists, surgeons, hospitals, pharmacies and cancer treatments here in Maine, I would be dead.

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