A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Constance Alexander: Early cancer detection, affordable health care matter to all women

She stood on the porch of her trailer, hugging herself against the autumn chill. The scarf coiled around her head, turban-like, was splashed with purple, fuchsia, and rivers of green. Her hands fluttered to straighten the scarf and check the swell of its silken knot, as I pulled into the gravel drive.

“You found me,” she called.

Her directions had listed a few landmarks on a winding country road in Trigg County. Besides a quarry, I was supposed to pass a burnt-down church and a bunch of rusted-out school buses, but I had seen none of them after I turned off the highway.

Still wondering if I would be able to find my way back home, I was only half-listening when she said, “I washed my hair today and a lot of it fell out.”

She announced her dismal news with a smile and a shrug. “Then when I came outside to dry my head off, the rest of it went. That’s what happens.”

That autumn afternoon marked my first interview for a project about end-of-life issues. The interviewee, a breast cancer survivor when she was 39, had enjoyed 10 years of good health until she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. In between those two challenges, she could not afford health insurance because of exorbitant rates due to her pre-existing condition.

She asked to be called Theresa in the newspaper articles and radio stories to preserve her anonymity.

In the first article about “Theresa,” besides losing her hair, she described the rituals associated with chemotherapy. At her last round, she’d met a woman in her twenties who had lost part of her jaw to cancer and was being fed through a tube in her stomach. She was not able to talk, but wrote what she had to say in a notebook.

“She told me she goes through four or five of those notebooks a week,” Theresa said, adding that in spite of the disfiguring surgery and other complications, the young woman was most upset about losing her hair.

Theresa comforted her with soothing words.

“You have a beautiful soul. It shows in your eyes. Nobody even notices things like hair when they can see what’s in your heart and soul. Look at the way you’ve handled your life. You’re radiant. Courage like that is beautiful,” she declared.

Courageous to the end herself, Theresa died at home a year later, in the care of loving friends and hospice. Her meager savings had been wiped out, and she finally went on disability when she could no longer manage to work.

Had she lived, she would have benefited briefly from the Affordable Care Act, her pre-existing cancer no longer a barrier to health care. Her relief would have been fleeting, however, amidst increasing uncertainty about when and how the ACA might be replaced, repealed, or revamped.

A current headline reads, “Steep Premiums Challenge People Who Buy Health Insurance Without Subsidies,” and Theresa and others with pre-existing conditions come to mind. The American Cancer Society predicts nearly 232,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer a year, and one in eight women will develop it during their lifetimes. Seems we are all at risk.

During October –- Breast Cancer Awareness Month — the National Breast Cancer Foundation, American Cancer Society, and other national organizations are involved in efforts to increase awareness of the disease, encourage early detection, and provide education and support services. Locally, the Murray-Calloway County Hospital (MCCH) Foundation is leading a campaign called “Because She Matters.”

Funds raised are directed toward the purchase of the latest 3D mammography technology, which increases cancer detection rates.

MCCH performs over 7000 mammograms a year, so the advantages of 3D mammography could have immediate impact. After all, one of the best protections against breast cancer is early detection.

For more information about “Because She Matters,” contact Keith Travis, the hospital’s VP of Development, at ktravis@murrayhospital.org or visit www.mcchendowment.org.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray, Ky. She can be reached at Calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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