Komorebi Post-What do you do when you or a loved one is diagnosed with cancer? This question will inevitably give rise to more uncertainty. How will we receive treatment? How will we pay for it? What will we do should the worst come to pass? What toll will this take on the body? What are the chances of surviving such a grueling endeavor? These questions do not even begin to scratch the surface of what races through the mind when presented with what could be a death sentence. These questions arise in the minds of patients and families alike as cancer diagnoses are delivered to individuals across the globe. “What do I do?” The simplest of words with the heaviest burden of uncertainty. Uncertainty that erupts into a wide spectrum of emotional responses.

These were all questions that raced through my mind when my mother, Elizabeth Waggener Polk, was diagnosed with cancer in 2005. To this day, I still remember seeing her after I drove home from school. I met her in the driveway of our home. She and a close friend of hers were getting out of her car after the doctor’s appointment she had scheduled. Naturally, my first question was how it went. “We’ll talk about it when your brother gets home.” I was as skeptical then as I am today. In classic form of a selfish sixteen-year-old, I pressed her for answers as my mind was already assuming the worst. Though it came from a place of concern, my incessant need to know caused me to blurt out my worst fear. “Is it cancer or something? Please just tell me!” She did not give me an answer. She simply smiled and said, “Go get some food and I can tell you and brother everything when he gets home.” I reluctantly agreed and did as I was told. It would be later that evening she told my brother and I the news. “I have cancer.” In a resounding display of strength, she said these words without a hint of the uncertainty and fear that flooded my mind. Feelings, I would discover later, she herself felt one-hundred-fold. Yet for the sake of her two children she put it all aside to tell us every detail of the appointment, the diagnosis, and our path forward. My brother sat and listened. I could tell he was feeling the same emotions I was. I pressed for as much information as I could. I needed to know what she was going through. I need to know how I could help. I needed to know. My mother handled it all with dignity and grace. As she did with everything else, she put the needs of others before the needs of herself. She even said that while she is off work for treatments, she would able to be around for us more.

If I were to describe my mother with one word, it would be altruistic. She is by far the kindest, most compassionate person I have ever known. Even though she was facing a seemingly insurmountable threat, she remained strong for my brother and I, and we did what we could to do the same for her. I could make a sizable case to show she was far better at it than we were.  Our local community came together to help. Her mother and step-father came and lived with us throughout the treatment process and helped shoulder the outrageous medical costs. Fortunately, she survived the ordeal and remains cancer free to this day. In many of our conversations on the subject, she has consistently said this support group and the grace of God is what ultimately led to her survival. She has since gone on to become an ordained minister of the United Methodist Church and is responsible for some of the most impressive community outreach and aid services I have seen come from any church. She is truly a shining example of what religion can and should do for people. She turns no one away. All are welcomed. No one is insignificant. The world is a better place for having her in it.

The High Cost of Cancer Treatment in the US

My mother’s case is one of survival and I hope serves as inspiration for any and all who face similar hardships. However, her story is not universal as many who receive varying cancer diagnoses end in tragedy. According to cancer.gov, “Cancer is among the leading causes of death worldwide. In 2012, there were 14.1 million new cases and 8.2 million cancer-related deaths worldwide.” While great strides have been taken to reduce cancer-related deaths, more could be done still. The United States has a privatized healthcare system, in which medical costs are paid for by third party companies. There is no federal medical system or aid in place. While there are government services that can help afford the cost of medical coverage, there is no system of universal health care. Many would argue that this is why the United States has the highest cancer survival rate as it pays for “the best” medical treatments. Yet, I have always found this argument to be dismissive of a larger problem. For example, Timothy Noah of Slate news states that “The reason to implement universal health care isn’t to lengthen cancer survival rates. It’s to give people access to medical treatment.”

One of the biggest concerns of any medical diagnosis here in the states is payment for treatment needed. This is no different with cancer. Treatment for the disease can often lead to bankruptcy as the average cost is around $150,000. According to AARP, “Not only are cancer patients 2½ times as likely to declare bankruptcy as healthy people, but those patients who go bankrupt are 80 percent more likely to die from the disease than other cancer patients, according to studies from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle.” This means that low income individuals are more likely to die from the disease.

Privatized Medicine is a Machine to Kill the Poor

In the discussion on the danger of cancer in the United States, it opens the door to an even bigger underlying problem. A problem that does not just affect cancer patients, but any patient searching treatment from any life-threatening disease. This problem is the privatized medical system that functions as for-profit businesses. Yet arguments are made in favor of such models, often times revealing itself in a position that avarice motivates more than altruism. On the surface, this premise seems to ring true. However, it ignores a deeper and more unsettling truth. Privatization will always prioritize profit over care. Proof of this comes from recent increases on essential drug prices in recent years. For example, in 2015 Martin Shkreli hiked the price of Daraprim, a drug used by AIDS patients, to $750 dollars a pill.  According to CNN Business Daraprim still costs around $1 to $2 dollars a pill as it is not expensive to manufacture. However, while Shkreli has gone to prison on fraud charges, what he did with the price of Daraprim was perfectly legal. There was no recourse or precedent to prevent him from doing what he did to drug prices.

Healthcare for All

Considering these morally reprehensible actions, and the injustice to low income patients, the United States needs to find a way to provide some form of universal healthcare to all its citizens. While privatization will not likely fully disappear, it needs to be drastically reduced and federal funds should be given to ensure that there is a system in place that will ensure all people have affordable and effective treatments available for life-threatening illnesses. While my mother’s story with cancer ended happily, we were fortunate enough to receive familial help in shouldering the high costs of cancer treatment. Many are not so lucky. Living through medical emergencies should not be a privilege for those who can afford it. I should be a right to all citizens; not just in this country but around the world. Fortunately, there seems to be a higher demand for such systems within the United States. With hope, this growing demand will flourish into something wonderful. Perhaps it will lead into a brighter future where fear of affording treatment remains in the past.

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