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Constance Alexander: Breast cancer requires affordable care but relies on kindness of others

Twenty years ago today, Theresa Flowers stood on her porch in rural Trigg County directing me down the sporadic gravel path to the trailer she rented after the recent break-up with her long-term partner.

“Right here.” She held up the palm of her hand and pointed at where to park.

Unfurling the towel that was wrapped around her head, she smiled and said, “I just took a shower and my hair fell out.”

Her welcome was as lively as the splashes of autumn colors in the landscape that surrounded her. When a random breeze swept across the grass and ruffled the leaves, a few more strands of her hair floated away. Laughing, she shook out of the towel and set the last locks free.

“The leaves are falling and my hair’s falling out, but that’s ok.” She shrugged. “In the spring, the leaves will all come back and so will my hair.”

She’d agreed to be interviewed for a series of articles about cancer, on the condition that her real name would not be used. (Her alias was inspired by her hero, Saint Theresa of the Little Flower, who’d been her favorite in the old days of Catholic school.)

This Trigg County “Theresa” was not in search of sainthood, but she was willing to talk on the record about what it was like to fight cancer without the benefit of health insurance. As a stained glass designer — a “starving artist” was how she put it – she did not have a reliable income to pay monthly insurance premiums.

When she was diagnosed with breast cancer at 37, she was forced to sell her house and incurred crippling debt to pay off her medical bills. Through determination and hard work, she eventually was debt-free, but with the pre-existing condition of breast cancer, health insurance was even more unaffordable than before.

At 50, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Her partner, who stuck with her throughout the battle with breast cancer, abandoned her.

“He said he couldn’t go through it again,” she explained with a rueful chuckle.

Throughout her new battle, Theresa fought gallantly and told her story through newspaper articles and a documentary radio series broadcast on WKMS-FM about end-of-life issues. Her plight captured the imagination and generosity of a Murray woman who, at 68, had been diagnosed with Stage IV Breast Cancer. Unlike Theresa, with Medicare and supplemental insurance, the older woman scraped together $1000 to start a fund and help defray some of Theresa’s mounting medical expenses.

Pat also agreed to be interviewed for the series Theresa was participating in, but asked to be identified only by her first name and her email address, pc65@apex.net.

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

Theresa’s chemotherapy cost four-thousand-dollars per treatment, and she was supposed to have six of them. “It’s almost funny. Unbelievable. I didn’t even make $24,000 last year,” she remarked.

With no family in Kentucky, Theresa relied on the kindness of friends and fellow-church-goers as she fought ovarian cancer. She managed to get a part-time teaching job, a godsend because it helped pay some bills and distracted her from worrying about her deteriorating condition.

Eventually, the Theresa Fund raised $8000, but the costs continued to accumulate. When her doctor suggested another drug to slow the deadly advance, she had no means to pay for it. Her credit cards were maxed out, her old red pick-up had given up, and there was no assistance available to defray the cost of the prescribed drug.

“That just turned my world upside down again,” Theresa admitted.

A friend who owned a local pharmacy ordered the drugs anyway so Theresa could start treatment. “They said we could figure out later how I’ll pay them,” she reported.

Theresa called it a miracle, declaring, “There are people along the way who say, ‘Come this way. There are ways through all this.’”

When I first wrote about Theresa and Pat, we all were hopeful that there would be legislation to ensure access to affordable health care for people with pre-existing conditions, but they both died before that happened.

For a short while, with the Affordable Care Act, there was hope. Over time, legal battles chipped away at the law, and on November 10, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on its future.

Twenty years after Theresa and Pat told their stories, their voices are still clear in my mind. Millions of Americans are still unable to afford medical care, health insurance, and prescription drugs. Amidst rising cases of Covid-19, more are acquiring pre-existing conditions that make the cost of health insurance out of reach.

In the past four years, there has been lots of yammering about “repeal and replace” with no evidence of a plan for implementation. If this continues, patients like Theresa Flowers will have to continue to rely on the kindness of friends, and strangers like Pat, as they struggle to survive.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For more information go to www.nationalbreastcancer.org.

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One Comment

  1. Anne Adams says:

    Still powerful!!

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