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Ijeoma E. Okoli Headshot

Cancer in America

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My friend, Andrea, has cancer.

When I found out, it shocked me to the core and greatly saddened me. Andrea is young, successful, kind, loving, funny, outgoing and happy and when I last saw her less than year ago she looked perfectly healthy as we walked the streets of San Francisco catching up and reminiscing about our past carefree lives as newbie lawyers in New York. But about three months after our last meeting came her cancer diagnosis. Now I have another adjective with which to describe her -- brave.

Andrea is brave for the way that she is determinedly fighting cancer with a smile on her face. Andrea is brave for championing other sufferers while she fights her own battles against her illness. Andrea is brave for revealing the most intimate details of her struggle and the toll that it is taking on her body to the world so that we can truly see what it is like to live with cancer. And last, but not least, Andrea is brave for the way that she hasn't crumbled during the battles with her health insurance company. Yes folks, that's right, in the midst of trying to save her life, Andrea is having to endure numerous conversations with unfeeling android-like bean counters who are looking for ways to cut her off when she is simply seeking the benefits that both she and her employer have paid for, including by making her prove that she is not lying about her cancer so that they could find a loophole to deny her coverage. Why would people buy insurance and diligently pay their premiums if not for those same insurance companies to pay out if the catastrophe for which the premiums were paid actually do occur?

In Andrea's battle, I am reminded of a story that Senator Obama used to tell on the campaign trail during the 2008 U.S. presidential election campaign. He told the story about how his mother, suffering from cancer, battled with insurance companies from her death bed. That experience was one of the driving forces behind President Obama's push for health care reform that finally gave birth to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, also known as Obamacare. Obamacare removes the threat of the pre-existing condition and lifetime dollar limit loopholes that some insurance companies use to deny coverage after years of eagerly taking premiums from those same people to which the companies seek to deny coverage. Obamacare also prevents insurance companies from dropping coverage when a person gets sick due to a mistake on such person's original application for health insurance.

It is often said that the number one cause of bankruptcy in America is illness. Many know of anecdotal evidence that might lend credence to this statement, but there are also studies that prove that the statement does have a basis in fact. A study published in the American Journal of Medicine in 2009 concluded that over 62 percent of bankruptcies in America were medically related, despite the fact that 75 percent of those who filed for bankruptcy had health insurance. In my family, my cousins had their life savings wiped out after the birth, illness and death of their infant son despite the fact that they had health insurance. They also had to battle insurance companies who refused to pay out on the debilitating effects of my cousin's illness that accompanied the pregnancy and persist years later to this day. Although they were able to avoid bankruptcy, everything that they had spent decades working for was wiped out almost in the blink of an eye.

One of the goals of Obamacare is to stop people from having to go through bankruptcy due to a health crisis. Despite its good intentions, Obamacare has been severely demonized by the American right. Obamacare has been compared to Communism (a very dirty word in America), Nazism and just downright evil. The American right has criticized Obamacare as supposedly yet another handout to the 47 percent. But the hypocrisy of the American right reveals itself time and time again; corporate welfare is okay, but medical welfare for the poor has to be cut or profits are private, but losses are socialized.

A prime example of the hypocrisy of the American right surfaced during a mock debate between the talk show host, Jon Stewart, and Fox News host and commentator, Bill O'Reilly, during the 2012 presidential election campaign. During the debate, O'Reilly railed against people taking disability benefits, but then Stewart asked O'Reilly what his father got when he left his company years earlier. O'Reilly initially denied that his father had filed for disability until Stewart, staring straight at O'Reilly, paused for a pregnant few seconds and sought to take a document out of his inner coat pocket. All of a sudden, O'Reilly confessed that his father had indeed received disability when he left his company. But why should benefits of society be okay for some take and not okay for others? Why should it be that in America the difference between life and death could unfairly be determined solely by whether you are fortunate enough to afford adequate health care to pay for mounting hospital bills? Why should that be?

During the signing of the Affordable Care Act, President Obama said: "We are a nation that does what is hard. What is necessary. What is right." What is right would be to for us to find a cure for some of the debilitating illnesses that inflict our loved ones like cancer, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease and Lupus, but until we do, basic human decency should prevail to cease putting people who are battling for their lives through the painful rigmarole of battling with insurance companies to stay alive.