I had a sobering experience today. With family history of colon cancer and with one of my favorite people in the whole world having passed away in December from colon cancer, I did the brave thing and made an appointment for a colonoscopy even though I am only 25 years old. My friend and mentor was only 34 when her cancer was discovered and she died within a few months of the diagnosis. As you can imagine, getting the colonoscopy was a sensitive and scary thing for me already. Adding to that was the stress of the financial cost, but I was assured that as a preventive screening, it would be covered by my health insurance. Well it was covered in part, but a sizable bill was still dropped into my lap. Today I called the doctor to inquire about how the procedure was classified when the bill was sent to insurance (this is after my insurance company refused to tell me much of anything other than that I was required to pay and there was nothing they could do about it). Thankfully, the woman I spoke to at the doctor’s office was kind and took the time to explain to me why I was being footed such a costly bill for a preventive screening. Well, as it turns out, if you have any family history of cancer, the screening is no longer considered preventive. Likewise, if they end up removing any growths (even if they are benign, as in my case), the screening is no longer considered preventive.
It took me a moment to remember I had a voice to speak with, as I was in such a state of shock. I calmly asked, “But if a person has a family history of cancer, isn’t the ONLY way to prevent yourself from getting it, to screen for it?” The woman on the other line (I will call her Jan) told me she agreed that it was the only way, but that insurance companies don’t see it as a preventive test. As I put two and two together, I realized just how little this health system actually serves the people. In fact it does the opposite — it profits at the cost of the person trying to do the only smart thing they can in the face of disease: get tested because early detection saves lives. I couldn’t suppress the tears; they just came like rain called to the earth by gravity. Jan and I had a good talk – we spoke for twenty minutes about health, fears about cancer, the disgraceful insurance policies that strip people of their access to preventive care, and finally, the loss of loved ones. Her husband died of cancer just six months ago, leaving her alone with young children. They both worked in the health industry; it’s where they met and fell in love. I cried for her loss, for my own, and for the injustice of the whole situation.
I am not just writing this post to tell you my personal story. I am writing because I just had a profound wake-up call to the fact that many systems in the world do not serve the people; they serve to benefit a handful of people and a corporation’s bank account. And it is going to take people like you and me to change that. Jan told me she is putting together a packet of information regarding the hidden loopholes that enable health insurance companies to claim the procedure isn’t preventive and shirk the bill. She wants to provide the packet to all colonoscopy patients so they are well-informed and can plan accordingly for how to cover the costs. She told me she is taking part in an upcoming race to raise money for cancer research, and her children will walk along side her. As we commiserated and brainstormed how to change the system so that everyone has access to important preventive screenings (colonoscopies have cut the death rate by 53%, a recent study published in The New York Times reports), I felt a strength and a hope blossom in my chest, despite the tears still streaming down my cheeks.
I realized Jan was changing the system already. And we can too. It’s up to us, guys and gals. We can start by treating each other with compassion and respect. And if we are brave enough, we can hold another person in their moment of vulnerability and despair, even from a distance, as Jan did with me. After all, kindness is perhaps the most REVOLUTIONARY ACT there is in this world. Although the systems in place may not always serve to benefit the majority of the people, we can choose to live with awareness and care for our fellow people. We can support each other rather than face challenges all alone.
Never let your despair or frustration deflate your power; remember always that you hold the influence to transform yourself, and thus, the whole world.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
― Margaret Mead