My cover story in the New York Times Magazine is up: it's called "Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer." As a journalist I write about all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes I write for fun. Sometimes I write because I have a great story to tell. Sometimes I write to pay the rent. Sometimes I write because if I don't say something about something I see as wrong I will absolutely explode. This is one of those. And it won't make you feel so good. That said, I do want to share another story that didn't belong in that piece, that has not so far belonged in anything I've written but that truly is a feel-good cancer anecdote: it's about how amazing and wonderful and compassionate people can be.
The background: In case you don't know, last July I found a lump in my breast; it turned out that the cancer I had 15+ years ago had returned.
I know. Fifteen years later!
But I’m so very lucky—the kind of cancer I've had is low grade, slow moving and unlikely to have spread. While there are no guarantees, my odds of surviving, with surgery and a five year course of Tamoxifen, remain pretty damned good.
Unfortunately, another lumpectomy would require more radiation. Since you can’t irradiate the same body part twice my only option was a mastectomy. Radiation also destroys the elasticity of your skin, making reconstruction with an implant a challenge. I considered just going flat, but I felt that for me, reconstruction would make it easier going forward.
My best option was something called a DIEP-Flap Reconstruction in which the docs take the fat from your belly make it into a breast. The upside is that the reconstruction is your own flesh (and yeah, there's my newly flat stomach....). The down side is that it’s a BIG honkin’ surgery involving a week on your back in the ICU and a looooong recovery at home. And, of course, as with all reconstruction it has no sensation. I don't know why no one seems to mention that. It feels more or less like a ball of socks appended to my chest wall.
Anyway, I have a lot to say about reconstruction—the pros and cons of it, the weirdness of coming out of all of this looking better than when I went in, what it’s like to have a NEW BELLYBUTTON (they removed the old one—if they didn't put another in I’d look like a space alien) but I’ll save that for another time. I’ll also save for another time a discussion of the loathsome new “reconstruction awareness campaign” (read the brilliant Gayle Sulik on them instead).
So, here is what I wanted to say today:
This procedure, this DIEP thingamabob, is highly specialized microsurgery. Not a lot of docs do it. The two who were most highly recommended to me were both outside my insurance network. The first one said, Well, you’ll have to pay the difference out of pocket but we can work out a payment plan. It would cost me roughly $20,000. I didn’t want a boob that badly. Still, it was extremely upsetting to think it wasn’t a choice but financial necessity.
Hello, American Health Care System. Never think it can't happen to you.
Oh, wait--this is a feel-good story.
Enter doc number two. I’m not sure he’d want me to name him so I won’t. Just think of him as Prince Charming. When I told him about my insurance woes Dude didn’t skip a beat. "Don't worry about it," he said--he'd take whatever the insurance gave him as full fee.
At first I didn't think I'd heard right. “Why would you do that?” I asked.
“Because," he responded, "it’s the right thing to do.”
This guy doesn't know me. He didn't know what I did for a living or who I work for (that is, he wasn't angling for media coverage). HE'S JUST A MENSCH.
Are you tearing up? Because I did.
We shouldn't have to depend on random acts of kindness in health care, but that's where we are. That's where I was. And as horrible as having cancer again has been, as difficult as the surgery was, I felt blessed the entire time by the generosity and compassion of this man. Cancer is not a gift, not at all, but he was.
Sometimes, you really can find a Prince.