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How a Routine Health Exam Saved My Life -- and Bank Account

04/12/2015 11:51 am ET
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In our Money Mic series, we hand over the podium to people with controversial views about money. These are their views, not ours, but we welcome your responses.

Today, one woman shares how an early-detection annual exam saved her life, and how the wise insurance decisions she made paid off -- she only had a mere $100 tab for her entire treatment.

For all 44 years of my life, I've been diligent about my health.

I've never smoked, hardly ever drink, eat a healthy diet of mostly organic foods, and never forget my omega-3 supplements. I maintain a healthy weight, and lead an active lifestyle with my husband and two sons.

What's more, I rarely get sick. If anyone in my house catches a cold or stomach bug, I suffer just a glancing blow, if anything at all.

In short, I'm the type of woman you might think would fare just fine if she skipped her yearly checkup. But I never have -- a simple fact that saved my life.

The Calls That Changed It All ...

In early 2014 I visited the doctor for my annual exam and Pap smear test -- then mentally checked that health to-do off my list for the year.

Until a few days later, that is, when my phone rang while I was out shopping. I was surprised to see my ob-gyn's number -- but even more surprised by the news. My results came back slightly abnormal, and I needed to schedule a second test.

No problem, I thought, considering it just a minor inconvenience in my busy life.

A couple days after the follow-up appointment, the nurse called again. This time, she said the Pap was even more abnormal, and I needed to undergo a procedure called a colposcopy to determine why. My doctor assured me those results should be normal -- and that would conclude the whole experience.

As you can probably guess, that wasn't the case. The colposcopy results were abnormal, as were the results of yet another repeat exam.

My doctor then recommended I schedule a treatment called a loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP), which involves using a low-voltage wire loop to remove abnormal tissues. It would take place at the hospital and require anesthesia -- but, again, my doctor expressed her high hopes for success.

And, in fact, the procedure was a breeze. I didn't have problems tolerating the anesthesia, or experience any lingering pain afterward. My doctor even came into the recovery room to report that, from what she could tell, everything looked OK.

Grappling With the "C" Word

The phone rang again about two weeks later. Expecting to hear the nurse's voice giving me the "all clear," my heart sunk when I heard the doctor instead.

The results were not what we had anticipated: My cervix showed severely abnormal cells -- and the doctor hadn't been able to remove them all during the LEEP treatment. She recommended a hysterectomy, or at least a second LEEP to remove more affected tissue.

"What would you do if you were me?" I asked her. "I'd have the hysterectomy," she answered.

Given the severity of the situation, I called in the big guns -- and saw a gynecologic oncologist, who performed a robotic laparoscopic hysterectomy. It went well. I didn't even fill the pain medicine prescription, getting by with ibuprofen and acetaminophen.

Thankfully, my recovery was swift. I was dramatically better in two days, turned a corner at week one, and was back to my usual self in just two weeks' time.

But at my follow-up appointment the next month, another bomb dropped. "We've found something... it's cancer," my doctor told me.

It was the less-common type of cervical cancer -- adenocarcinoma -- but since we were fortunate to catch it early, it was grade 1B, which is a relatively low stage of progression.

The concern, at this point, was that some cancer cells could have "escaped" and headed for my lymph nodes, which the doctors hadn't removed.

So I needed treatment: six weeks of chemotherapy once a week and six weeks of daily radiation, plus two internal, high-intensity radiations. My doctor would refer me to a radiation oncologist, who could take it from there.

This time was certainly a frightening one -- but I'm a firm believer that attitude is everything. I was determined to view the diagnosis as just a blip on the radar of my otherwise happy life.

In fact, to maintain as much normalcy as possible, I only ended up telling about a dozen key people in my life -- those directly supporting me or watching my boys, who were home for summer vacation and who I wanted to shield from the news.

The list of my treatment's potential side effects was long and shocking -- everything from sleep and skin problems to hair loss and mouth pain. It was presented to me as "you will have these," not "you might have these."

But I embarked on the treatments, hopeful I'd somehow escape those nasty side effects -- and, incredibly, I did, for the most part. I experienced nausea and had trouble sleeping, but found comfort in home remedies and listening to a healing hypnosis CD each night.

I finished my last treatment in September 2014 -- and I feel really great. My oncologist says that my chances of staying cancer-free over the next five years is 99.75 percent.

I count myself as one of the lucky ones, not just because of my excellent health prognosis but because, unlike so many other families navigating a health crisis, my husband and I were able to successfully keep our finances intact.

The Savvy Moves That Safeguarded My Money

All in all, we were responsible for just over $100 in copays -- $25 for each of my ob-gyn and oncologist appointments.

I don't have a clear picture of what the total tab would be if we were forced to pay it out-of-pocket, but I'd estimate it would be more than $200,000 between the surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation.

Although my husband and I earn an above-average household income -- and have significant savings -- I'm relieved our security was never threatened.

And it's all thanks to the excellent health insurance my family gets through my husband's job as a firefighter.

When we signed up for our insurance plan many years ago, I remember debating between two different tiers of coverage. While we could have gone with the lower-premium plan because we were healthy at the time, we ultimately opted for the increased coverage, knowing it'd be money well spent if we ever needed it.

And, boy, was it.

The more expensive insurance plan scored us those reasonable copays and covered all of my treatment, without even needing to meet a deductible.

Knowing I was well-insured also removed any temptation to skip my yearly exams, because I knew my financial burden would be minimal. I'm glad I don't have to wonder what might have happened -- to my health or our finances -- if we didn't have such extensive coverage.

But I didn't just fall back on a great, past health care decision.

I also took it upon myself to safeguard our finances throughout the crisis by ensuring I had all necessary preapprovals and doctor's referrals in place. I double-checked each physician accepted our insurance, and tracked appointments on my calendar to make sure I stayed on top of things well ahead of each visit.

Thinking back, I'm not sure what prompted me to be so diligent, other than a vague notion that failing to cross my T's might trigger pricey out-of-network charges. Then, of course, there's also my natural propensity to always play by the rules.

That tendency really paid off -- to the tune of about $199,900.

In the end, the lesson is that an unforeseen medical emergency can happen to anyone, but it doesn't have to threaten your life and your finances.

Making smart insurance decisions when you're still healthy is what gives you the freedom to focus your energy on what really matters -- getting better.

I'm happy to say I'm living proof of that.

*Name has been changed.

This post originally appeared on LearnVest.

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LearnVest Planning Services is a registered investment adviser and subsidiary of LearnVest, Inc., that provides financial plans for its clients. Information shown is for illustrative purposes only and is not intended as investment, legal or tax planning advice. Please consult a financial adviser, attorney or tax specialist for advice specific to your financial situation. Unless specifically identified as such, the individual(s) interviewed or quoted in this piece are neither clients, employees nor affiliates of LearnVest Planning Services, and the views expressed are their own. LearnVest Planning Services and any third parties listed, linked to or otherwise appearing in this message are separate and unaffiliated and are not responsible for each other's products, services or policies.

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