11/15/2013 03:23 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Cancer at 30: No One Is a Young Invincible

Life was getting underway the day I found a suspicious lump. My first book had just been published and was being received well in my field. I was traveling and speaking about a new research project. The phone kept ringing and there was little time to think.

I figured that was the reason why my weight was falling. It was one of those good side benefits of a busy schedule. Why worry about a pea-sized lump? Lots of women have those and they turn out to be nothing. Coincidentally, that was exactly what my gynecologist said it was: nothing but a cyst.

Two more visits to that doctor resulted in him telling me that, at my age and with my family history, there was nothing to worry about and I should get on with life. He refused my request for a mammogram, suggesting that I should relax. I gave relaxation a try until a friend told me, "You look bad. If you don't go see your GP for another opinion, I'm not going to talk to you." There were dark lines under my eyes and I was becoming tired and downright skinny. I took her advice. It was cancer.

When I read about young people declining to sign up for health insurance, I remember back to that time. Sure, it's great to be young. One of the best things is thinking you have a long time before you need to worry about your body giving you major problems. And isn't life a gamble anyway? I'm sure many young people reason this way and to some extent they're right. Having spent a significant part of my career studying how people reason about health, it's no surprise to me that weighing the odds causes a good many of us to take risks.

Yet, there is no such thing as a "young invincible," the term currently bandied about to describe adults under the age of 35. It's not their fault if the system is unresponsive when they attempt to learn their insurance options. But it is their responsibility, to themselves and their families, to make sure that if something does go wrong -- as it often does -- their insurance will afford them the care that could save their lives.

Most of us, young or not, do what we can do more than what we should do when it comes to health care. We know we should have several servings of fruit and vegetables each day, exercise, get enough sleep and keep the stress down. To the extent any of these can be done fairly easily, people are more inclined to do them. Right now what young people should do -- sign up for health insurance -- is being further hindered by what they can't do: get it done when they first try.

It boggles the mind that a team of top computer geniuses wasn't assembled, and now hasn't been found, that could avoid endless online delays in obtaining health insurance. This provides a handy excuse for young people putting health insurance in the "should do" category because it isn't at the moment what most "can do."

Nevertheless, if you are young, old or somewhere in-between, life is full of sharp curves. My father used to say, "If you have your health, you can do anything." He was right. When you don't have it anymore, you want to be very sure that whoever can help you get back on track is not beyond your financial grasp. Mental, physical or emotional health problems are only a happenstance away.

Rather than continuing to tell young people that they're needed to make the Affordable Care Act work, why not start telling them that their health matters, that denial has never been a cure, that there are lots of risks they'll take in their youth but not having health insurance is a risk that affects everyone who loves you and every dream you have.

Kathleen has held a joint position on the preventive medicine faculty at the University of Southern California, is the author of the debut novel Shadow Campus and blogs here.