by Melissa Hahn
– USA –
Just before Christmas, we locked up our apartment in Krakow and walked across the Rynek towards the train station. Crossing the main square in the early morning drizzle, overburdened by our luggage and breathless from our brisk pace, I was about to turn the corner onto ulica Floriańska when something pulled at my reins. For a moment, I looked back at Kościół Mariacki (St. Mary’s Cathedral), and found myself frozen in place, unable to continue. Sparkling in the silence, it captivated me as if I was seeing its red brick and uneven turrets for the last time.
Scolding myself that we’d miss our train, I tried to kick my legs back into gear but to no avail. Taking in slow, satisfying breaths of the wet, empty square, I felt a sense of foreboding and bittersweet tranquility. A day in Prague followed by a trip home for the holidays was a welcome break from my graduate studies abroad. Still, watching the snow-covered woods pass in the distance from the train’s window, I felt a dull ache of sadness.
In my scrapbook drawer are our return tickets, unused. On January 2nd, my husband was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
Having suffered mildly from an upset stomach in the preceding several days, Mike happened to notice that his right testicle was swollen as well. Incredibly, the urologist was able to see us that very day. Twenty-five minutes later, he had completed his examination and had found a small lump. Turning to me with a grave expression, he asked about our plans.
“Well…we were planning on flying back to Poland in three days,” I said, sensing that those plans had just been canceled.
“You need to get an ultrasound today,” he said to Mike. “And I need to see you tomorrow.”
Sitting in the waiting room the following afternoon, my stomach was lodged in my chest while my mind was both spiraling out of control and strangely blank as it attempted to make sense of it all. Cancer. A 3 mm tumor lodged inside the testicle. Looking at us with eyes full of sympathy but also hope, the kindly doctor assured us that the cancer was beatable.
“The survival rate is between 95-98%, and you can still have children. Your life is going to be a wild ride for the next few months, but you are going to make it out OK.”
According to the National Cancer Institute, testicular cancer accounts for only 1% of all cancers in the US, but is the most common cancer in men ages 15 – 34. Nobody knows exactly what causes testicular cancer to develop; warning signs include a change in the feeling of the testicle or the detection of a lump; a dull pain in the abdomen, back or groin; or a sudden collection of fluid in the scrotum. Unnerved, we recalled that Mike’s lower back had been bothering him for at least a year. How long had the cancer been lurking there?
Our care was transferred to Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, a vital but severely under-funded public hospital struggling to survive amid a disinterested and hostile political environment. Throughout Mike’s treatment, I lived in fear that the hospital would fold. As graduate students living abroad, we had no health insurance and could not possibly pay for cancer treatment at a private hospital.
The testicle needed to be removed within a week of its discovery, leaving us only two days to accomplish the impossible paperwork task required by the hospital administration to admit Mike for his operation. We applied for subsidized care, entering into a bureaucratic nightmare. Wandering the labyrinth of threadbare offices and stern faces, we tried to explain ourselves to the satisfaction of employees more accustomed to dealing with indigent and immigrant cases. Thinking we were only visiting for two weeks, we had only our passports for identification, and certainly no documents proving residency. After five hours, I began to lose my temper with the employees who were unable to understand that a US passport indicated US citizenship; each time they looked at my Korean-American husband and said that they didn’t provide aid to foreigners, I thought I would scream. They couldn’t process the convoluted details: US passport. Born in Korea. On a US military base. Here from Poland. Parents in Arizona.
In their aid-strapped eyes, a less-qualified patient could not exist. And, in the Martin Luther King, Jr. District of Atlanta, we were up against the city’s historical racism. Standing in line with three hundred people, ours were the only white or Asian faces. Perhaps, they thought that we didn’t really deserve assistance. The day before the surgery, our paperwork was still unresolved. The administration suggested that we just come back and take care of the tumor in a few months. By then, the urological surgeon warned, the tumor would most certainly have spread.
Through some miracle, Mike had his surgery exactly a week to the day that his tumor was discovered. After the whirlwind leading up to the operation, we had plenty of catching up to do. Mike had strength to regain, deposits to make at the sperm bank, and follow-up appointments to keep. I had a logistical ordeal to sort out with my life in Poland. Life was split incomprehensibly between the two realms of Krakow and Atlanta; incongruously typing a final paper on globalization as Mike rested, I felt both hyper-motivated and terribly lost.
Two months later, the radiation therapy began. For the longest sixteen days of our lives, we drove an hour into Atlanta and sat restlessly in the waiting room for two more hours until Mike’s name was called. Exhausted from the ordeal, he slept for three hours each afternoon immediately after lunch. Usually, I was so drained that I fell asleep, too. Twenty minutes of radiation treatment sapped our entire day; our new routine had become eat, sleep, hospital. On his last day of treatment, the staff congratulated him and said that they would miss their favorite patient.
“You came to every appointment on time,” they said. Apparently, he was an anomaly.
After examining Mike’s skin and stomach muscles for damage, the radiologist gave us the green light, with orders to report to a urologist in six months for blood work. Walking out the door for the last time, Mike’s positive air belied the fact that he had ever coped with cancer. The rectangular radiation sunburns itched like crazy, and his abdomen was slightly misshapen, but he had a full head of hair and a sparkle in his eye. It was over.
Five months ago, we were home for the holidays – seeing family, stocking up on supplies and pondering thesis topics. In the space of a half-hour, our lives suddenly turned inside out and we joined the ranks of the unemployed and uninsured. I have always been a proponent of national health insurance, but now I am particularly vocal. The American Cancer Society reports that 47 million Americans currently are without health insurance, and millions more are insufficiently insured to cover cancer costs. Heal magazine for cancer patients states that 29 million Americans have medical debt. And according to US News & World Report, at least half of all bankruptcies in the US are due to medical expenses – but 76% of those medical cases actually started out with health insurance. Unable to work due to their illness, they became unemployed and subsequently lost their health coverage. And, once diagnosed with a serious illness – even one with an above 90% survival rate such as Mike’s testicular cancer – patients are in essence blacklisted from ever purchasing individual health insurance. Countless times, doctors frightened us with the new reality: “You’ll never have health insurance again.”
In our case, we were undeniably fortunate. We had my parents to stay with, and a law on the books that mandated our subsidized coverage once Mike obtained a state of Georgia driver’s license. We have family that may be able to help with the rest so we can avoid bankruptcy. But surviving an illness shouldn’t be a matter of financial luck and extended family resources. Nobody can afford a serious medical illness, and as human beings very few of us are likely to make it through life without one. Though government and society cannot guarantee that everyone will survive the illnesses that our bodies will face, it can guarantee to provide us the necessary medical care we all deserve as a matter of basic human dignity. Because at some point, whether we like it or not, the name on the chart and on the ID bracelet will be our own, but by then, it will be too late to speak up.
About the Author
Melissa Hahn is a freelance writer and world traveler whose projects include foreign affairs analysis, children’s literature, and creative nonfiction. Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, she completed her B.A. in Russian Area Studies at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, and is currently a graduate student at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. She is an associate analyst at The Power and Interest Report and currently writes for the English-language edition of the Pan-Korean Peacemaking Webzine.
A photojournalist and amateur artist, Melissa aims to bring small joys to people’s lives and to enable Americans to release their fear of the rest of the world. Through her works, she hopes to inspire her readers to seize the day and experience the wonder of humanity that exists both around the globe and in their own backyards.