A breast cancer survivor shares her experiences with the BRCA gene.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

My New Role Model

At this point, I'm advising/encouraging several women with breast cancer, who have been directed to me. Breast cancer, it seems, has become a communicable disease.

None of them "want to inconvenience me"--some even apologize for "interrupting" whatever I'm doing with their call. It must be a woman thing. They are so used to giving to everyone else and aren't used to asking for help themselves. It reminds me of when I was in their position and so appreciative of the women who dropped everything to answer my questions and point me in the right direction.

So, I reassure these women: You can't inconvenience me...because it's not an inconvenience. Being there for someone else is the least I can do after the masses of people who reached out to me. They provided a lifeline. And now, I want to extend a lifeline to these women.

Every one of them has the same concerns: facing the possibility of an earlier death than they expected...worrying about finding the right doctor...getting the best advice...being overwhelmed at sifting through all the information and opinions...dealing with anger about doctors' offices for not returning calls...worrying about how their kids are holding up...fearing everything.

My advice is always this: Be proactive. Aggressive. Pester them until you get the answers or help you need. Anything to be heard. With this disease, you can't be passive or shy. You can't simply sit along the sidelines and patiently wait. You have to take matters into your hands. You have to take your life into your hands.

I'm not suggesting you storm the Bastille and take no prisoners, but I can assure you that you can be--and should be--diligent in getting the answers to your satisfaction. Some of the women I've been talking to have told me about doctors who were dismissive with their questions...when you're dealing with your body being mutilated by a knife, there's no reason for anyone to be dismissive. Or, surgeons who seemed irritated and impatient, as if this woman was taking up too much of their time. Then, I advise them to seek a second opinion. Not that they may get a different answer, but you need to be 100% comfortable with the physician you are entrusting your life to. And that includes the physician's office staff, and how well that's run. Believe me, you can be more assertive with doctors -- I promise you, their egos can take it.

It's time we all adopt a new role model...and her name ain't Dorothy.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Hobby of Cancer Patients

People ask me how I spend my spare time. Well, while others are pursuing interests such as tennis or tango, I deal with insurance claims.

It's not the hobby I would have naturally chosen -- I was thinking more along the lines of painting classes or learning Greek -- but, since I was first diagnosed with cancer seven years ago, I have become preoccupied with resolving claims between my health insurance company and the provider - whether it's the doctor's office, hospital, lab, physical therapist, pharmacy...you name it.

First, I want to say that for the most part, I've been extremely impressed with my insurance company, Blue Cross/Blue Shield. Not only have they covered almost every claim, but they have also provided exceptional customer service. They have been pleasant and helpful...even going above and beyond to explain things and work through issues. Most of the time, it's been the physicians' offices who were unorganized and unprofessional...and down-right irritating at times. Of course, how many doctors do you know who went to business school? And yet, most of them are CEOs of their practices.

The cost associated with all my cancer has been staggering when you add it all up -- between the chemo and surgery and radiation (which I'm told is far more expensive than the previous two combined), the drugs and the billions of tests they put you through. The amount of money that has been spent on me could have paid off the debt of a third world country.

But now, I am stuck with a bill that I'm quite baffled about. I received a letter the other day from Myriad Labs, who stated that of the $3,000 for testing they conducted, my insurance company paid a little over $2,000 -- leaving me with the remaining balance of almost $1,000 -- even though BCBS had originally agreed to covering it in full.

When I called BCBS, my customer service rep explained to me that because Myriad was "out of network" for my policy, they would only cover 100% if it was an in-network lab. But, Myriad is the ONLY lab in the U.S. that conducts this test -- so I had NO choice in the matter. They were the only option for me to learn I had the BRCA gene, I pointed out.

Doesn't matter, I was told.

I don't get it. BCBS covered all my surgery -- plus, all the tests, doctors' visits, medications, etc -- because I was a breast cancer survivor & BRCA gene carrier and, yet, they won't pay for the lab that found I was a BRCA gene carrier in the first place.

Go figure.

I learned this after being on the phone for 30 minutes with BCBS today. My next step is filing an appeal and stating my case as to why they should cover this cost in full. Another day, another phone call.

Maybe one day, I'll have time to learn how to knit.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Giving 101

There is woman who works in accounting at my company. I've always liked her because she wasn't your stereotypical accountant (zero personality...no sense of humor...easily irritated by stupid questions from people like me). She was warm and friendly and helpful. She didn't roll her eyes when I filled out spreadsheets incorrectly.

We bonded over my tutorial in Accounting 101. During this time, she and her husband had their first child.

Fast forward 5 or so years, and we ran into each other a few days ago. I immediately recognized the "chemo look." The hairless scalp. The neatly tied head scarf. I was shocked to discover she had cancer.

She's incredibly optimistic. She said she's in good hands with her physicians. She has been on my mind ever since. I'm praying for her, but I want to do something tangible -- like grab hold of her and heal her. This is where we all feel so powerless...when we see someone suffering and can't do anything....and yet we can.

Here is my tutorial in "Giving 101" --

#1 - Care.
#2 - Pray.
#3 - Help...running errands, babysitting, bringing meals, driving them to the doctor's appointment...the list is endless.
#4 - Give...to cancer research.

The month of October has become as synonymous with breast cancer--and as a result, cancer in general--as it has with Halloween. The pink ribbon is as well known as the jack-o-lantern. And because of the enormous effort in raising awareness --and funds -- for cancer research, our lives are benefiting.

This past weekend, my company and our customers participated in a huge fundraiser benefiting the American Cancer Society. Called Order the Cure, it was the brainchild of a man who is beating his dire prostate cancer diagnosis due to advanced treatment now available.

We banded together to sign up participants and "decorated" our building with colored balloons, representing all cancers -- pink for women's, blue for men's, yellow for kids', red for "all other cancers." Participants called and emailed us -- "Sign me up for Order the Cure! I'm a 10 year survivor...our coworker has just been diagnosed with breast cancer...my mother (brother, daughter, sister, best friend, husband) is going through cancer treatment right now..."

A sharp young woman named Michelle with the American Cancer Society pulled together an army of volunteers who came out in force to help. We printed t-shirts and bought hot pink pens, and produced stickers that said "I Ordered the Cure!"

Stories began trickling in. One participant asked her customers to write the name of loved ones on a colored card, which she taped to her doorway. At the end of the fundraiser, she will be sending all the cards with the names to prayer groups. Another participant found checks made out for $1,500 and $3,000 in their donation jar. People were genuinely enthusiastic to pray and help and give. The final numbers are not in yet, but I know we raised thousands of dollars for cancer research.

In a few weeks, a member of my staff will be participating in a separate fundraiser -- the 3 day breast cancer walk totaling 60 miles. She's raised over $3,000 in donations and is walking in my honor. Another example of giving.

So, in addition to caring and helping and giving, I'm also praying that my coworker will have every reason to be optimistic. That she, too, will be cured of cancer so she can go back to doing "mom things" and continue to tutor people like me in basic accounting principles.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Memories...Of the Way I Was

In Gabrielle Garcia Marquez's book "100 Years of Solitude," he writes about a town in which all the citizens catch a disease in which the side-effect is memory loss. He must have been writing about menopause.

My memory has vanished due to the abrupt loss of estrogen resulting from my hysterectomy. A friend commisserated with me: "Instead of getting a hysterectomy, I think I got a lobotomy." She went on to say that her sister is so frustrated by her lack of memory that she's rethinking taking a vacation anywhere. She figures, why bother spending all that money when she'd forget it all six months later?

I know how she feels. I can't remember from one moment to the next. I have to write every thing down, or the thought will evaporate. I mix up the names of close friends. I misread emails and recipes. My cooking has become suspect...

Yesterday, I washed my face, applied makeup, brushed my teeth and began getting dressed for work...when I realized that I hadn't showered. All of this would be funny, except that on the drive to work, blue flashing lights caught my eye on the expressway. In a split second, the car in front of me slammed on their brakes and I had to swerve -- barely avoiding an accident -- all because I had gotten distracted.

So, now my scattered brain has gone from being mildly amusing and somewhat irritating to very scary. Friends have offered their advice -- supplements, websites, books. So much to read, so much to retain mentally.

I ask my staff to be patient with me. This group of twenty-somethings does their best to tolerate my forgetfulness, but their estrogen-filled bodies can't relate. I remember when I used to have a quick mind like they have now. This must be one of the passages in life I must adapt to. At least I can trade experience, maturity and wisdom of age for detail, multi-tasking and clarity of youth.
I guess it's time for me to switch from my natural brunette color and dye my hair blond since that typifies my state of mind from now on.