Nation’s Largest Health Insurer Drops Women With Breast Cancer

On Thursday, the news agency Reuters reported on how the insurance giant WellPoint is targeting women with breast cancer and canceling their policies. According to Reuters, WellPoint is the nation’s largest health insurer, with one in nine Americans covered through WellPoint or one of its subsidiaries. This shameful practice is called rescission and healthcare reform is supposed to change that.

Wait, it gets better; Reuters also reported that lobbyists from WellPoint and other insurance companies removed a stipulation in the House bill that would have created a federal oversight office to monitor such practices, and required third-party review when insurance companies drop policyholders. The final bill did not include these consumer protections.

The news isn’t all bad. I took some comfort in the quick response of U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to WellPoint. In a letter to their CEO, also reported by Reuters, she called the practice “deplorable” and basically told them to knock it off. She said the practice will be illegal under the new healthcare law.

But that doesn’t mean we should assume  everything will be okay and we don’t have to do anything. The bill is law, yes, but it’s subject to change and we need to make our voices heard. This link shows you how to contact your Congressional representative and senator.

There are two other reasons this is important: 1) It’s not just about breast cancer. According to Reuters, a WellPoint subsidiary doesn’t care for a potentially costly condition called pregnancy, which triggers the same extended investigation that breast cancer does. Reuters also reported recently on how Assurant Insurance is dropping people who are HIV-positive. 2) This points out how important it is to have professional investigative reporters, not just citizen journalists like us bloggers. Let’s hear it for the Fourth Estate.

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The Only Thing We Have to Fear

Last week I had one of those light-bulb moments that seem to come out of nowhere. It may have been more of a “discovering the blindingly obvious” moment but I’ll let you be the judge of that.

I’ve been soliciting review comments for a book I wrote about my experience with stage 0 DCIS. I contacted a blogger whose tastes in books is far-ranging and I thought she might be open to reading mine. She agreed to read an advance copy but told me she had to give it some thought because the topic scares her.

That’s when I realized that I’ve sort of gone native when it comes to breast cancer. And by that I mean I’ve gotten so used to dealing with the before, during and after of it that I’ve forgotten that other women are not used to it and are afraid of it.

It reminded me of when I was a mental health worker in a former life. Most of the people I worked with were schizophrenic; some had bipolar disorder. I was so comfortable working with them I forgot that the rest of the world might not share my point of view. Once when my parents were visiting I kept inviting them to come have lunch at our day services center. I’ll admit I was a little slow to catch on. My mom kept politely saying no and I kept pestering her until she finally said, “I don’t think I’d be comfortable.” Oh.

Breast cancer is the same way. I know how scary it is to wait for that phone call, and to wonder how you’ll know if you’re making the right treatment decision. I also know that it’s like so many other things in life, where dreading it is worse than being in it. I’m not saying it’s a fun experience, although you will find moments of humor and love. All I’m saying is you’re tougher than you think. I learned I was.

They say courage isn’t the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. Fear just goes with the territory when it comes to breast cancer. But if your fear is strong enough that it keeps you from going in for a mammogram, please fight it. More of us than ever have good outcomes because our breast cancer is caught early. Let’s say your mammogram does find cancer. What if you had postponed it for several years? All you’ve done is given cancer a head start.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He was addressing the country during a banking crisis, but he could have been talking to us. You can live with fear. But you may not be able to live with late-stage breast cancer.

Four Reasons Breast Cancer is Like Golf

Whether you follow golf or not, you’re probably aware that the final round of the Masters took place today.  We couldn’t avoid it if we wanted to, with the media focus on whether Tiger’s fans would forgive his transgressions, would his wife show up, blah blah blah. My frame of reference is a bit different. As I watched on and off between pruning roses and other spring yard cleanup, I was struck by the similarities to breast cancer.

For the record, I’m not a golfer. Motor skills are not my strong suit. But I did try it for a season and even took lessons. It was quite a stretch for me to go from a best ball situation to having to hit my own ball all the way through. I think I made par once. I also nearly beaned a groundskeeper in Phoenix. But I digress. Here’s what I think breast cancer has in common with golf:

Reason No. 1: Obstacles are part of the deal. Mark Twain called golf “a good walk spoiled” and if you look at it that way, it is. Trees and sand traps and water are just waiting to claim your ball. And yet golf courses are some of the most beautiful places on earth. With cancer, your bunkers and water hazards are biopsies and blood draws, surgery and radiation and chemo. But you’ve also got love, humor and loyalty in the face of these obstacles—the things that lend beauty to the adventure.

Reason No. 2: Both are humbling experiences. It doesn’t matter if you’re Tiger Woods or that guy in the cubicle next to yours who dreams of making par. Sometimes your shot will end up in the trees, or the gallery, or the bunker. It’s a leveling experience. So is cancer. Educated or ignorant, health conscious or not; the cancer gods don’t care. We’re all pretty much the same in a hospital gown. But there’s a good side here as well. It can be quite humbling to realize how much people care, as it must be for golfers when they hear the gallery applaud and realize it’s for them.

Reason No. 3: You have to deal with internal noise. As with any sport, golfers have to contend with “choking”—when they’re favored to win but can’t handle the pressure. Golfers can also be prone to the “yips”—when you aren’t steady enough to make a putt. For those of us in the pink ribbon tribe, our version of choking is more like freezing. What was that the doctor just said? How am I supposed to decide what kind of treatment and risk I’m willing to accept? We all need to find a way to quiet that noise in our heads.

Reason No. 4: It’s not your score on the board but your conduct on the green. Sure, you can throw your clubs or curse at the caddie, but what does that really get you? It’s the same in Cancer World. You can throw a tantrum at the surgeon’s receptionist but what good have you done? Does that mean you should never get angry? Of course it doesn’t. No one has the right to tell you how to feel, but that doesn’t give you license to take it out on others.

I mentioned that we couldn’t escape the Masters if we wanted to. And even at the Masters, we can’t escape breast cancer. If you follow golf you know that both Phil Mickelson’s wife Amy and his mom have been battling breast cancer. He wasn’t sure Amy would even be able to attend the Masters, but she was. When they embraced after his win, you could feel how special the moment was. And I can’t think of anyone who deserves the green jacket more.

Women Touched by Breast Cancer Turn Lemons Into Lemonade

It never fails to knock me out how some people can turn an awful experience into something positive. The most famous example in the breast cancer community has to be Susan G. Komen for the Cure. It’s a household name now, but it didn’t spring to life fully formed. It started with one woman’s promise to her dying sister, in one community. Today that community is global.

Kathy Gurland did something similar when she lost not one, but two sisters to cancer. She could have crawled into a hole and never come out. Instead, she founded PEG’S Group, dedicated to helping anyone with any kind of cancer navigate the healthcare system. She developed a very useful compass that I blogged about in November. Her efforts are largely focused in New York but her group helps people anywhere.

Another example I just learned about is the Pink Link Breast Cancer Support Network. Vicki Tashman created it when it was her turn to get breast cancer. It’s like match.com for women who are being treated or have undergone treatment, and their caregivers. She said in more.com that she realized not everyone had the same access to healthcare and support resources that she did. That resonated for me because like Vicki, I had great access. I had the luxury of finding doctors I like in addition to being experts in their field. 

Women with breast cancer are even influencing the way hospitals are designed. Diana Spellman is an interior designer, who, thanks to her own experience, is creating holistic healing environments for other patients.

There are too many examples for me to recount here, but they’re going on everywhere, every day. Here’s to all those women who are busy making lemonade.