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Dead Woman Working: Thankful for Cancer Struggle

It’s Thanksgiving time again, and I do take time to pause and remember the things for which I am thankful. This year, my struggle with cancer tops my gratitude list. There is nothing quite like facing serious health challenges to bring into clearer perspective what matters most in life and the work that remains to be done.

The fight for an improved and expanded Medicare for all for life healthcare system in the United States remains my highest priority in terms of advocacy effort. During the past several months as I worked through diagnostics, treatments and surgeries, I always butted up against our for-profit healthcare system. Though I am insured, I still make hundreds of dollars in monthly medical payments that resulted from the portion of my medical bills not covered by insurance. I hate being dunned for money by the providers I saw this year, but sometimes even my best efforts don’t allow me to head off an over-aggressive business office collecting their cash. I also fought my insurance company for approvals of tests, medications and treatments. I won the appeals, but I also wasted precious time and energy doing so.

Another way my latest cancer fight provides opportunities for gratitude is through the way the rest of my circle of family, friends and colleagues reacted to me and interacted with me through this period. You learn who is friend and who is foe without delay. As disconcerting as that can be, learning about who can be trusted and who cannot be bothered helps in decision-making for the future. I saw how my failings in relationships came home to roost, and I learned more about the harsh realities of some relationships I thought were more solid and mutually valued.

About a year ago, before I knew cancer was back in the picture for me, I began treating my body a lot better by eating a diet rich on vegetables and fruits and sparse in processed foods and animal products. I limited my salt intake, stop caffeine use and avoided artificial sweeteners. Within a relatively short period of time, I began to lose a significant amount of weight, and I saw other health improvements. What I didn’t know at the time was that I was making my body better able to stand up to the cancer onslaught to come.


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One year later, I am still taking good care of my body, and my body is taking good care of me. I don’t want to be ridiculous about it, but I wish I could convince more people that eating better and moving more isn’t all that hard. I almost never worry about the volume I eat – I am careful about what I eat. And I certainly do not want any patient being guilt-tripped into thinking that being sick or in need of care is somehow his or her fault if they don’t always take great care of themselves. Plenty of people with really ugly lifestyles – either due to bad nutrition or other substance use/abuse or terrible patterns of stress – need healthcare too. We are human, after all. If we were to take access to care away from all humans who didn’t completely live clean lives, we’d have a mess beyond measure. And who would be judge and jury of those human failings and their relative impact on healthcare needs and costs? Talk about having death panels...

In any case, I am a stronger woman this Thanksgiving. I learned more about myself and about my world. And many of this year’s best lessons came because I had to face my own mortality more immediately because of cancer. I wouldn’t have guessed that last year at this time.

Will I be thanking the universe for something more apparently positive next Thanksgiving? Will cancer change this coming year as much as the last? I don’t know. But this year, I am grateful I will go forward to fight another day for the only healthcare system that doesn’t blame patients for being patients – improved, expanded Medicare for all for life. If we had it now, I’d be spending Thanksgiving with my family instead of writing this blog. I spent all the travel money on co-pays and deductibles.

Happy Thanksgiving 2012.

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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