THE BLOG
05/17/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

My Luck: Coincidental Symptoms and Health Insurance Saved My Life

This is one more personal story about the importance of having health insurance. And this is the week to tell it.

In late 2006 I was living contentedly alone, doing publicity for my book, traveling extensively. I flew to Vietnam with a press group and realized I was falling behind as the group walked around. I was skipping activities, going to bed early. Vague symptoms: a tightness, a tiredness, a strange feeling around my head. In Hanoi I found a clinic near the hotel at 2 in the morning. The young doctor could find no obvious problem.

After Vietnam I traveled on my own to Cambodia. I was conflicted: I wanted to go home and rest and see a doctor. But then I figured if I were sick I may never have a chance to see Cambodia again.

I had trouble walking around the ancient temples at Angkor Wat. I felt disoriented. I hired a guide and driver to accompany me. It was now obvious that I was feeling worse.

Did I have a stroke? I dreaded the long flight back to the states. but managed. In New York I underwent a full physical with x-rays, and they showed nothing abnormal. But I still felt off.

And so I eventually went to a neurologist and had an MRI of my brain. The doctor said that the MRI showed that the meninges, the linings of my brain, were swollen but it was not life-threatening. He wasn't sure why this happened, but I needed to take it easy and wait. I was worried that the pressure in my head would increase and my symptoms would get worse, but they remained about the same.

I took another MRI a month later, and got a call from the doctor: The swelling had shrunk. Yea! But wait. Something showed up high in my right lung. I needed to check it out, and he was adament.

Confusion, scrambling. Friends, family, support. I eventually had a biopsy, in January, 2007.

It was cancer.

But I never smoked. I wasn't coughing. It seemed impossible.

Lung cancer is usually caught when symptoms appear, at stage 3 or 4. But my symptoms had been mainly in my head. They were coincidental, and had nothing to do with cancer.

And here's the luck part. If I hadn't thought I might have had a stroke and taken the MRI of the brain, and, if my cancer had not been high up in my lung so that the MRI for the brain could pick it up, I would probably be dead by now.

And I'm also lucky that I have health insurance in a country where so many are uninsured and would have been unable to afford the specialists, and wouldn't have found the tumor until it was too late.

I went through a seven-hour operation where the doctor removed one-third of my right lung, even though the tumor was tiny. The malignancy was caught at stage 1a, the earliest possible stage.

People can and do survive lung cancer when it's caught early. The percentages are with me. So my swollen brain was not a stroke, but a literal stroke of luck.

And I am outspoken in my support for health-care reform so that all Americans can get medical help early, and share the same kind of lucky break that I did.

This is the week to contact your congresspeople. Remember the personal stories of people with and without health insurance --who were lucky and who weren't --and take a minute to google your congressperson's email or phone. Then tell them to do vote yes for reform, because it is the right thing to do.

Do it, please.