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Dead Woman Working: Why I’m No Robin Roberts

If you follow morning television at all or have it droning in the background as I often do while getting ready for my day, then you may have followed the cancer story of ABC’s  “Good Morning America” co-host Robin Roberts. 

Her struggle has been an awful one, as is often the case with cancer journeys, and even this morning we learned that her beloved mother in Mississippi had died just last night after Robin bid farewell to her GMA duties to prepare for her upcoming bone marrow transplant.  My heart goes out to her and to her family, and nothing I write here is meant to in any way diminish or demean her courageousness or the grace with which she has faced her illness and life issues.  I admire her greatly.

But, I am no Robin Roberts.  I am a woman, and a cancer survivor and patient, a daughter, and I have a career I value.  That’s where our similarities end.  My experience in trying to manage the cancer issue over these few years has been more similar to what other, more “average” women face.

This week, when I saw the report on Robin’s upcoming bone marrow transplant, I could help but think about my friend and fellow SiCKO subject (from Michael Moore’s 2007 documentary), Julie Pierce, and the battle she and her late husband Tracy fought and lost for him to have his bone marrow transplant.  Tracy had kidney cancer.  His brother was a perfect match for a bone marrow transplant just as Robin’s sister is a perfect match for hers.  But Tracy and Julie’s insurance wouldn’t cover the transplant, so Tracy died a painful and unnecessary death without the new bone marrow.  The goodbyes he said weren’t on national television with millions of people wishing him well and praying for his return.  In his 30s, Tracy left his wife and his young son, Tracy, Jr., and the world scarcely took note until the posthumous media attention and the movie later. 

We haven’t seen Robin need to fight her insurance company or drain her savings and retirement funds or lose her home while fighting the cancer.  We haven’t seen ABC replace her or diminish her visibility as they waited to see if she would live or die.  It’s awful and horribly stressful to watch the normalcy of your everyday life slide away as you try to internalize your panic so no one will count you out too soon while also hoping they will help you through the rough spots.  Being broke because medications cost too much or deductibles and co-pays mount up adds to daily stress, and I know Robin never faced that.  Yet that’s what many cancer patients face.  I know I have.  I know Tracy did.

All of the life stressors we face are just intensified when fighting a major illness like cancer, and when those stressors like career, housing, and other financial securities are added to the strain, it makes the story much less heart-wrenching like Robin’s and far more terrifying and deadly.  We hear over and over that stress kills.  Just this week, ABC reported a link between stress and strokes.  It is already well established that cancer and stress are linked.  Ratchet that up when you look next at a cancer patient you know.  Imagine feeling like you are a drain while also feeling like you must carry on looking unafraid and strong.  Accept that those cancer patients you know are not as much like Robin Roberts as you may think. 

What would make dealing with cancer or other serious illness more manageable would be not needing to worry about the health insurance fights.  Under an improved and expanded Medicare for all for life system, that stressor would be gone.  Decisions about treatment would be made based on the patient’s medical needs – as we have seen Robin Roberts’ doctors so decently explain as she faces the treatment determined best for her condition.  It’s a lot different to have your doctor as your partner in that way than always wondering when the next denial will come and how best to fight it.

So, I was so sad to see this morning that Robin’s mom died.  And then my mind wandered. What if my mom died unexpectedly?  She’s 84.  Would I be able to be with her in her final hours?  Could I afford to get to her and still cover all of my expenses for medical care, including covering things denied for insurance payment? Not likely.  I’d be lucky to have enough on hand to get there after the fact. 

Many groups are advocating for a Robin Hood Tax that would tax financial transactions and raise revenue from Wall Street to help heal all the damage done to Main Street America.  That would help fund the sort of health reform that would make it more likely that cancer patients would access appropriate care whether they were celebrities like Robin Roberts or not.  It’s worth doing that sort of tax reform rather than leaning into austerity measures that make fewer people able to receive care.

Life, illness and death are not the same for us all, and I have never expected them to be.  But I do hope we will at least consider how very different the “average cancer experience” is from that of Robin Roberts and work toward the day when a more just healthcare system wipes away some of that unnecessary inhumanity. 

Donna Smith

Donna Smith
Donna Smith Donna Smith is the national chair of the Healthcare Not Warfare campaign for Progressive Democrats of America.  She was featured in Michael Moore’s 2007 documentary, SiCKO.

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