Did you ever find yourself doing something innocuous that unexpectedly unhinges you? You’re cleaning out a closet, say, and you come upon the umbrella your mother bought that weekend when you took her to the Big Apple for her birthday to see a play, and you got caught in a sudden rain shower. And you remember your laughing protest when she insisted you keep the umbrella, even though it was her birthday, because she wanted you to have a souvenir of this lovely weekend you’d given her. So, years later, here you are, cleaning out the closet. And you find the umbrella in the corner you’re sorting out. And the next thing you know, you feel like someone has stabbed your heart with a very long, sharp sword, and you are on your knees, weeping, remembering how you had to use that umbrella at the cemetery the day you buried her.
It’s one thing when you’re by yourself when this happens. It’s another when a total stranger happens to be involved. Back in 2003, my friend and fellow physical therapist at work lost her only son in the infamous Station Nightclub fire that happened here in Rhode Island. Her son was 22, he was planning to go to law school, and the night of the fire had been his one and only visit to that nightclub. My colleague had not come into work the day after the fire, but I didn’t know why until someone told me she was at home, waiting to find out if they were able to identify her son’s body. I felt like someone had crushed my heart. We all felt like that. All day long. Waiting for the confirmation of his death that didn’t come officially until the next day.
Perhaps a week or two later, her son’s funeral, one of the hundred that took place that winter, was finally planned and scheduled. I was on the phone at work, talking to a local florist to order some flowers to be sent from all of us at the clinic. I’d decided on a price and an arrangement style, and the florist was asking me where I wanted it sent. I started to tell her and instead broke into tears, literally choking up. It wasn’t that difficult for her to figure out who I was talking about, however. “We’ve had a lot of calls for him,” she said gently, which made me cry even more. And I realized that she must have to deal with this all day long. I got a bit of a grip on myself and said something to acknowledge that, and she agreed it was a tough part of the job. We thanked each other cordially and hung up, just in time for me to collapse into more sobs. I had already cried my heart out and dried my eyes with my colleagues over the previous several days. But somehow, having to say his name, having to admit that this bright, handsome young man was going to be buried in a few days, made me feel like I’d just heard the news all over again. And it hurt more somehow because a perfect stranger was kind to me.
I had another of those experiences this morning. No one died this time, thank goodness. I was calling the claims department for my cancer insurance to ask a few general questions. Yes, I have cancer insurance. More on that in a minute. It’s taken me an entire eighteen months just to get myself and my paperwork together enough merely to start the formal process for this claim. Every single step of this entire task has been extraordinarily painful, from downloading the claim forms, to finding out what the insurance company needed to process the claim, to calling all the hospitals and cancer treatment places and medical offices I’ve been to during this blasted sleigh ride to request itemized statements. It’s not like I’m working toward some horrible end result. Far from it, in fact. Cancer insurance in a kind of supplemental insurance that helps cover the costs of this miserable experience that don’t get covered by regular health insurance. It helps pay for things like traveling far from home for treatment, and even for taking someone with you. It more than covers all the co-pays you incur. It’s also helps you pay for babysitters or taxi rides or other things you never anticipated you’d need. It’s a wonderful, inexpensive and miraculous thing, the miracle being that it exists at all and that I had the remarkable luck and rather uncharacteristic prudence to purchase it.
Finally, last week, right before the end of 2009, I girded my loins, copied all the medical statements and pathology reports and receipts I had so far organized, filled out the form, typed up a list of enclosures, and stuffed it all into a large envelope. It took me another whole day to get to the post office and mail it, but at last, on December 30th, 2009, eighteen months and ten days after that routine screening mammogram found something “suspicious,” I mailed off the pile of paper documenting most of my battle with the Stalker to date. When I got home, I had to lie down and stare at the ceiling for a while, tears sliding down my cheeks and into my ears. When you buy something like cancer insurance, that primitive, superstitious part of you wants to believe that you are making a bargain with fate: If I buy this, then I’ll never need it. And here I was. Needing it. I think I ate dinner that night, but I’m not sure. I know I ended up back in bed, very early, curled up in a fetal position with the covers tucked tight under my chin, trying to sleep myself away from reliving everything, while pathology reports drifted stubbornly behind my eyelids.
Okay. Deep, cleansing breaths. Back to the burning question. Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as cancer insurance. I found out about it about four or five years ago at the annual benefits fair at work, where we get to review our regular benefits and sign up for optional benefits. There was an agent booking brief, individual appointments to explain what it was and sign people up. He was unusually busy all day long for a very good reason. A few years previously, one of our rehab therapists, a healthy, young woman of 30, was diagnosed with colon cancer. She endured the whole nine yards of treatment, plus the painful slog through long-term side effects, fatigue, and neuropathy. And I’m happy to say she is alive and well today. But naturally, it scared the ever-loving bejesus out of all of us. So, a good many of us, who might not otherwise have done so, signed up for cancer insurance that day.
Our policy provides incentive coverage for cancer prevention, through annual cancer screening tests like pap smears and mammograms, as well as reimbursement coverage for actual cancer treatment and its related expenses. You can find out more about it here at this link: Colonial Life Cancer and Critical Illness Insurance. It only costs each of us $300/year, which we pay ourselves, and if you get one standard cancer screening test each year, they’ll give you back $100.
This morning, I called to make sure they had received all my stuff and to ask a few general questions. Whoever is in charge of this department at Colonial Life has done a commendable job of training the staff. Every time I have spoken to someone in the cancer claims department, they have been invariably kind, patient, helpful and informative. There are a few so-called comprehensive cancer treatment centers I could name who could take lessons. This morning was no exception. Yes, they had received everything and had just this morning set up the formal claim. Yes, they had scheduled a call back to me on the claim status three weeks from today. Yes, even though reimbursement for lost wages wasn’t included in my policy, I should definitely fill out the lost wages section of the general claim form and have my doctor sign it, because I was entitled to have the premium waived for the time I have been dealing with all this. And yes, the policy would certainly continue to help me out with expenses related to the diagnosis and treatment of all the long-term side effects I have experienced since I finished acute treatment. And was there anything else they could do for me today? No, I said, you’ve been very helpful. Thank you very much, I said, and I’d barely hung up the phone before I began to weep for about the umpteenth time.
If I’ve done the math correctly, I will get enough payout from this whole claim to enable me to cut back more of my work hours without worrying about how I was going to pay all my bills with a reduced paycheck. This is a good thing, because I just don’t know what the hell else to do at this point, short of winning the lottery so I could stop work altogether. Somehow, all I’ve managed to do this past year or so is to tread water. But I never seem to make it to shore. Somehow, I need to tip the balance, to enable myself to fight back against the reappearance of my cancer-related fatigue and the recurrence of my axillary web syndrome and the new appearance of my pulmonary fibrosis. I have come to be afraid of hope, because I had hoped by the end of 2009 that I would feel normal again. But somehow, I need to risk hoping so that I can keep fighting to get back to myself. And win. Eventually. And it is comforting to know that the cancer insurance will keep helping me.
I would say I was lucky I bought this insurance, but I’ve come to resent the very word. I’ve been told way too many times that I’m ‘lucky’ I had early cancer. Yeah, right. Feel free to insert your favorite expletives here. Luck, as my Sistahs all know, would have been never having had the damn disease at all. Luck would have been winning that bet I made with fate five years ago, by buying cancer insurance and never needing it.
“It’s déjà vu all over again,” originally spoken by Yogi Berra, in reference to back-to-back home runs hit by Mickey Mantle & Roger Marris in the early 1960’s.
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