09/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mary Duffy Speaks Out At Jackie Speier Town Hall

At a town hall event on Sunday in San Mateo County, Calif., Rep. Jackie Speier (D) broke from the question-and-answer format to ask a specially invited guest to stand up and talk.

"She speaks to the real life experience of people and I think sometimes we forget what the real life experiences are," the congresswoman said. Mary Duffy then took the microphone to explain why she is passionate about health care reform.

"In the past 20 years I've been a small business owner and I've been through breast cancer three times," Duffy said, "and I can tell you right now that the challenge of trying to find insurance was worse than going through any of the cancer treatment that I went through."

The Huffington Post interviewed Duffy last week as part of our series on regular people dealing with unemployment and lack of health care. Afterwards, Speier's office, with whom Duffy had previously communicated about her situation, asked her to speak at the town hall.

Duffy explained that she was only able to get an insurance policy nine years after her first bout with cancer, and that she'd gone without from 1992 to 1997. Within six months of obtaining a policy, she was diagnosed again. She said her insurance company claimed she'd known she had cancer when she signed up -- and immediately tried to get rid of her (it failed). After her third diagnosis in 2005, Duffy said her treatments left her too exhausted to continue running her small business, which provided food service consulting to colleges and universities.

"In 2007 I was really lucky, took a job with a big company in my industry. It was great. My insurance premium went down from $800 a month to $110," she told the crowd. "I thought I had died and gone to heaven. It was great until I was laid off.

"Now I'm on the end of my COBRA, coming up in December. I haven't been able to find work again. And I'm not even going to try to look for medical insurance when that runs out in December because I simply know I won't be able to get it unless we pass this kind of reform."

Duffy said she was swarmed after the event ended.

"'Thank you for standing up there and telling your story,'" people told her. "There was a very articulate nurse practitioner and she grabbed me and said, 'I just wanted to thank you, that's all.' I don't know who it was...a lot of people came up and told me about problems with cancers in their family."

Duffy said it took an hour and a half to get to her car after the event, even though it was only a block away.

"Our nation needs more Mary Duffys -- an entrepreneur, active in her community and willing to tell her intensely personal story to help others," Speier said in a statement. "Now, through no fault of her own, she is faced with the prospect of battling cancer with no job and no health insurance. Mary Duffy is exactly the reason we desperately need health care reform in
this country."

Watch video of the town hall at www.montarafog.com. Duffy speaks from roughly 51:40 to 56:30 in the video.