I Was Diagnosed With Cervical Cancer At 24 — The ACA Saved My Life

Photo courtesy of Randi Couch.
Update: The Senate voted Tuesday, July 25, to start debate on repealing the Affordable Care Act, with Vice President Mike Pence casting the deciding vote.
Randi Couch is a student and recent Young Advocate in the Rocky Mountain office of Young Invincibles, a millennial think tank and advocacy organisation. The views expressed are her own.
As a girl growing up in Northern California, I never went to the doctor regularly. My parents were of the mindset that, unless an actual bone was broken, “rubbing some dirty in it” could fix any scrape or wound. Plus, health care was expensive.
I carried this mentality into my twenties. I’m an active young person, and I felt healthy. I considered the doctor to be a luxury and a last resort. Then, at 24 years old, I was diagnosed with cancer.
I was a college student at Metro State University in Denver when the message from the doctor popped up on my phone. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, I was covered by my father’s insurance. This meant I could actually afford to go in for an annual exam, including a pap smear, without incurring out-of-pocket costs. An earlier call from the office had assured me that everything checked out, my results were fine. I figured this new voicemail would say the same. But this time, the nurse’s voice took on a somber tone: “This is serious,” she said. “We need you to come in for a biopsy right away.” I called my mom from the school parking lot and began to bawl.
My routine pap smear showed that I had medium-risk precancerous cells in my cervix. My doctor informed me that I needed to return every three months to make sure it didn’t get worse. It got worse. The cells became high-risk quickly and a biopsy, called a colposcopy, ultimately diagnosed my cervical cancer. Since being diagnosed, I’ve had six pap smears and two colposcopies. My condition is treatable when caught this early: stage 0 cervical cancer has a 93% survival rate. But without that first free pap smear and follow up tests and consultations, all covered through the ACA, I might still be undiagnosed.

There is nothing like the word “cancer” to make you want to get everything checked out.

Today, access to those preventative services are at risk. The Republican leadership in the U.S. Senate is trying to fast track a new health care bill to repeal the ACA, foregoing committee hearings and opportunities for public debate. The Senate’s bill maintains many of the most detrimental pieces of the House-passed American Health Care Act (AHCA), including giving states the option to waive existing protections for Essential Health Benefits (EHBs) and preventive care. That means millions of Americans could lose access to free preventive services that screen for serious illnesses early on, as well as essential services to help treat them.
With the help of the ACA, I could afford life saving appointments and biopsies. Without it, my finances would have determined my ability to detect, manage, and survive my condition. And it’s not just students like me who are impacted; if GOP lawmakers eliminate these provisions, they effectively choose to put some of our country’s most vulnerable citizens at greater risk.
There is nothing like the word “cancer” to make you want to get everything checked out. After my diagnosis, I visited the optometrist after 10-plus years of thinking my vision was fine, only to learn of a tear in my retina. If left untreated, it could have caused vision loss. Even though I’m physically fit, I have serious conditions that I couldn’t have detected without regular preventive care. I now strongly believe that everyone should have access to free yearly physicals. We all may feel “healthy,” but the only way to know what is happening inside our bodies is to get checked out. Cost shouldn’t be a barrier for people to keep themselves healthy, starting with preventive care.

Cost shouldn’t be a barrier for people to keep themselves healthy, starting with preventive care.

I’m 25 now and will need to pay for my own insurance soon. Currently, the ACA protects me against seeing my insurance premiums skyrocket due a condition I did not cause and cannot prevent. I’m counting on the continuation of affordable health care access to stay on top of my health in the years to come.
The ACA allowed me to catch a potentially life-threatening illnesses early, while it was still treatable. Millions of women might not be so lucky if this bill becomes law. We should make it easier —not harder — for people to get preventive care and for people with pre-existing conditions to get treatment without going broke. I urge the Senate to protect Essential Health Benefits and consumer protections for pre-existing conditions. We’re counting on them to buck politics and choose to keep young people like me — and all Americans — healthy.
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