Breast Cancer Survivor Helped by Federal Screening ProgramNov 17, 2011
An active volunteer with the American Cancer Society’s advocacy affiliate, Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN), Anne Creech fights every day for funding of federal cancer programs.
“I talk to legislators and media people about keeping the dollars in research, or we’ll go backwards and people will suffer. You can’t stop research and start a year later in the same place,” says Creech.
But in July, 2010, Creech found that she needed to fight for herself. With no health insurance, she was diagnosed with a recurrence of breast cancer. For help, she turned to the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP). The program covered the costs of her mammogram and allowed her access to Medicaid to cover her surgery and other treatment expenses. The surgery bill alone was $29,000, more money than she might earn in a year. Creech, who has also survived colon cancer, is grateful.
“Choices like that for some people lead to bankruptcy or kill them,” says Creech. “Sometimes people have to choose between treatment, food, or their home.”
10 million mammograms
This fall will mark the 10 millionth breast screening performed by the NBCCEDP. Since 1991, this federal program has provided low-income, uninsured, and underinsured women access to lifesaving breast and cervical cancer screenings.
Despite this record of success, the program is severely underfunded, serving fewer than 1 in 5 eligible women. ACS CAN is working to increase funding that supports the program.
Creech’s experience with the NBCCEDP was just the latest chapter in her long saga of cancer and insurance. She says she’s just trying to stay well.
The first time Creech was diagnosed with breast cancer was in 1982 while she was covered under her husband’s insurance. She first noticed a yellow discharge from the nipple of her left breast. After several checkups and a biopsy, she got the diagnosis. Two weeks later, she had a modified radical mastectomy. This operation involves removing the entire breast and some of the lymph nodes under the arm. Creech, who was 36 at the time, was living in Sylvania, Ohio with her 4 school-aged children.
“It takes a lot to scare me,” says Creech. “I’m a pretty strong-willed person. I’m glass-half-full most of the time. It was traumatic having my breast cut, but I went through that and it healed beautifully, and they put an implant in.”
But for the next 2 years, she experienced nerve and muscle pain in her arm and shoulder, and a painful tightness from her elbow to her breast. She underwent several operations to relieve the pain.
Then in 1983, she found a lump in her right breast. A round of tests found no cancer. But doctors warned that she was at high risk to develop cancer, and she elected to have her breast removed.
This time, surgery removed her breast tissue, but no nodes or extra muscle from under her arm. She didn’t have the arm and shoulder pain she experienced with her previous mastectomy. Creech, a Jazzercise instructor, was in excellent shape and strong enough to undergo a breast reconstruction at the same time she had the mastectomy.
“I’ll fight as hard as I can to have this not take me,” says Creech.
A second cancer
In 2000, Creech noticed blood when she went to the bathroom and immediately saw a doctor. A test to look at part of her colon called a sigmoidoscopy found a large tumor in her rectum and colon. Doctors surgically removed the tumor and biopsied it. Once again, they found cancer.
By this time, Creech was divorced and working in a sales position for a small company of about a dozen employees. Her care was covered under the company insurance plan. Because her tumor was malignant, she had additional surgery to remove 17 inches of her colon and ¾ of her rectum. Recovery from the surgery took months. She was unable to drive for a long time and still must be careful about what she eats. But today, Creech is able to lift weights, participate in sports, bike, and dance.
“I’ve been very fortunate and God’s been on my side and I’ve been on my side,” says Creech.
About a year and a half after her colon surgery, Creech says, “My boss came to me and asked me if I would be willing to get off the company insurance plan because I was costing everybody a lot of money.” Creech wanted to spare her colleagues from any additional financial burden, so she agreed. At the time, she didn’t realize how much the decision would cost her.
Creech found an individual insurance policy outside of work that would cover her. It cost $600 a month with a $3,000 deductible. And she had to agree to a 3-month exclusion for anything cancer-related.
But as Creech puts it, “They made everything cancer-related.”
What’s more, after 3 months, the insurance company extended the cancer exclusion to 6 months, then 1 year, then 3 years, then 5 years, then 7 years. Then they made it for life.
Creech felt trapped. She needed insurance in case of something catastrophic, like a car accident. And she didn’t think she could find another insurance company to cover her with 2 cancers under her belt. So she stayed on the plan.
In July, 2010, Creech’s breast cancer came back. The first sign was a change in the scar tissue on her left breast. At the spot where the stitches had once ended, she noticed the skin had turned from white to reddish. She went to a dermatologist, who ordered a biopsy.
That day, Creech called the insurance company to ask if they would pay for the biopsy. The answer: “If it’s positive, no, because you have a lifetime exclusion for anything cancer-related. If it’s negative, no, because you haven’t met your deductible.” She canceled her insurance on the spot.
When the biopsy came back positive, a colleague from her volunteer position at the American Cancer Society suggested that Creech call the local NBCCEDP project in Ohio. Creech’s income and insurance status made her eligible for help with some of her diagnosis and treatment expenses.
‘I feel like I’m here for a reason’
Today Creech says her quality of life is terrific and she considers herself a healthy person. She says, “When I have been blessed to recover, I feel like I’m here for a reason: to get other people through this.”
In addition to her volunteer work with ACS CAN, Creech also volunteers with the Make-A-Wish Foundation and she speaks to people who have recently learned they have cancer.
“I talk to cancer patients because I was blessed with a happy attitude,” says Creech. “Those words are scarier than anything you will ever hear. Everybody loves you and is around you and I feel that. But I am the one who is fighting this disease in my body. I have to be courageous enough to make that decision to take care of cancer and do what I’m going to do to fight cancer.”
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