Friday, November 11, 2011

Cancer Sucks, But Also Brings Unexpected Gifts

“Cancer Sucks.”

That’s what the button said. I laughed out loud. It was a big button, available in many colors. I bought a lime green one for a friend who just reached her first year anniversary past diagnosis. I hope the button makes her laugh, and I hope she wears it.

I found the button at the gift shop in the UCSF Medical Center’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, where I had just met with a social worker. Back story: My oncologist wants to see me every six months for follow-up appointments. I think once a year is plenty now that I am two years past the most recent diagnosis.

Who wants to spend time – or money – at the doctor’s office?

At my appointment last week, I whined about the high cost of seeing the oncologist. A follow-up visit runs $391, and six months from now I will be on the hook for the entire amount as I will not have met my insurance deductible. “Go see our social worker,” said my doctor. “You may qualify for some assistance programs.”

“I am sure I won't qualify,” I said.     

She replied, “Go anyway. Ask.”

That’s logical, so I went.

Guess what? Based on my freelance income and my teensy pension, I do qualify for several programs that help breast cancer survivors pay medical expenses. The social worker -- my new best friend -- filled out some forms and submitted them electronically for me, and she gave me information about other agencies to contact.

I walked out of the medical center in a daze. I boarded a bus, hopped off at Laurel Village and meandered into Chico's, where I bought a $100 sweater on sale for $50. Immediately I felt guilty about spending money just after signing up for help with medical expenses, so I may return the sweater.

When I first sat down with the social worker, I told her I do not want any money that could be used to help people far needier than I am. She said the funds I qualify for are set up by people who have lost family members to breast cancer, and that no one in dire need will lose out on any money just because I happen to be in the program. “You qualify,” she said. “It’s okay.”

After cancer the first time, I got the opportunity to write "Chemotherapy and Radiation for Dummies," which is also available in French and German. Only 5 percent of all book authors make a living at it, but I did collect a few royalty checks and I would like to think that what I wrote in that book from a patient’s point of view has helped other people going through cancer treatments. Now it seems that cancer has delivered another gift.

Back home later in the afternoon, I got a note from a former neighbor, a woman I treasure as a friend. From her I received the gift of laughter. Her note begins: “Today I am paying bills. The most important one is to the Humane Society of Missouri. Perhaps they can spay or neuter some of the Republicans. Such a sad bunch!”

The moral of this story is this: Go anyway. Ask! And no matter what answer you get, remember to appreciate the sunset.

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