While I have always supported Medicare for All and accessible, affirming health care for everyone, I am particularly reminded of this conviction every January. This significance is not because of any sort of New Year’s resolution. January is thyroid awareness month and, more personally, the anniversary of my own thyroidectomy.
No one expects to get cancer, especially not a 22-year-old with no symptoms or cause for concern. But, even with nothing wrong, I went to my annual primary care check-up like I always did, thanks to coverage from my mom’s health insurance. There, my PCP found a small lump on the right side of my neck, and while it was “probably nothing to worry about,” she referred me to get an ultrasound. Three months, one ultrasound, one fine-needle aspiration (without lidocaine!), two rounds of genetic testing, and one stomach-dropping phone call later, I found myself on an operating table.
How does someone so young get cancer? Simple. Thyroid cancer risk isn’t really impacted by age like other types of cancer usually are. It’s this same reason that thyroid cancer has one of the highest rates of bankruptcy in its survivors in the United States. Along with a high survival rate, thyroid cancer affects more young people, and young people are less likely to have a job that provides insurance coverage.
As anyone with insurance coverage knows, that doesn’t mean everything is taken care of. Even today, six years later, I am still split between gratitude that I wasn’t uninsured, and anger at how expensive it was to save myself from cell division gone rogue.
There was, of course, the ultrasound, which found that I had not one but two nodules on my thyroid. Then the fine needle aspiration, a process in which cell samples are taken by jabbing multiple needles into the suspicious lump. Those samples were sent off for two rounds of genetic testing–one of which was not covered by insurance and cost nearly $900 dollars. Thankfully, the lab had a financial assistance program that I just barely qualified for, and the bill disappeared. Further, it was the out-of-pocket test that found there was a 50% chance I had cancer. One total thyroidectomy later, it was confirmed.
My cancer was caught early enough to save me from additional treatments and thus subsequent bills. With insurance, I still owed the hospital about $10,000. Had I not gone to a hospital with a generous patient financial assistance program, I would still be in debt. Even with that support, I still found myself paying off an additional few thousand for anesthesia and the like, which I paid off in $50 installments. I wrote “cancer money” in the memo line of those monthly checks.
No one should have to fight with insurance companies and billing departments in order to not die of cancer. No one should have any amount of debt because their cells stopped dividing correctly. Frankly, medical debt should not exist, regardless of the severity of the health concern that was treated.
People need to be able to access health care—from primary care to cancer treatment and everything in between—without concerns about the cost. The fact that those with the power to make health care affordable and accessible in this country choose not to is an embarrassment.
Because of this, we must fight for universal coverage. Everyone deserves the dignity of health care access. Here in Maine, the group Maine Health Care Action is gathering signatures to put the topic on the November 2023 ballot. Unsurprisingly, they’ve found that most Mainers are in support of universal coverage, something I myself have noticed when discussing this issue.
Additionally, it’s important to increase awareness of thyroid cancer. The two go hand-in-hand, as coverage leads to engagement in primary care, which means regular screening for thyroid cancer and better health outcomes. Had I put off that annual checkup, the cancer could have spread to my lymph nodes, leading to a harder fight or even death. On a smaller scale, keep up with your annual check-up if you can, and, as the thyroid cancer survivor community says, “check your neck.”
Photo: Protesters outside the Maine State House in February 2018 demanding expanded health coverage. | Beacon
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