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Breast Cancer Doesn't Play Politics

Today's post is by Patricia Harman, a certified nurse midwife and author who lives and works near Morgantown, West Viriginia. Her first book, The Blue Cotton Gown, was called “luminescent, ruthlessly authentic, humane, and brilliantly written” by author Samuel Shem. Her second book, Arms Wide Open, was described by Tina Cassidy, author of Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born, as "A sparkling, vivid story of how a midwife is born-and survives." 

ArmswideopenRecent events involving Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the nation’s leading breast cancer advocacy group, illustrate how vulnerable women’s health care options are. Last Tuesday the organization announced they were cutting their funding to Planned Parenthood, which amounted to about $680,000 in 2011. By Thursday, under tremendous pressure internally and externally, the charitable foundation reversed its decision.

As a nurse-midwife and women’s health care provider, I see the issue from the front-line when my patients who don’t have insurance come to me with breast problems. Follow me into my exam room and you’ll see what I mean.

Forty-five-year-old Gail Wilson lies on the table with her left breast exposed. I don’t even have to touch her to see there’s a mass. A lump the size of a quail’s egg shows in the upper right quadrant and I inwardly cringe.

“It’s bad isn’t it?” Gail asks me.

“Well, it’s not good, but not all lumps are cancer. How long have you had it?”

“About a year.”

“A year! Weren’t you worried?"

“Not at first, but finally my husband insisted I get an exam. He was laid off at the shirt factory three years ago and we don’t have health insurance…” Her voice trails off apologetically. “There isn’t a Planned Parenthood in my area and it took a few months to find a provider that would see me.” I let out my air wondering how and where I will get this woman a mammogram. I can do her visit for free, but it’s $350, at the hospital, for the scan.

It takes me four days and I’m getting worried, when I finally find a program through the health department that will fund Mrs. Wilson’s mammogram. Unfortunately the news isn’t good; the test shows breast cancer, stage 4, with metastasis into the lymph nodes. Gail waited too long. She won’t last the year.

Approximately 1 in 8 U.S. women will develop breast cancer during their life time, that’s around 300,000 new cases each year and 20% of those women don’t have health insurance.

In a nation as rich as the United States, it is a travesty that people like Gail and her family cannot get diagnostic tests when they need them, cannot get an examination when they’re ill, cannot get medication when it’s prescribed.

The Susan Komen incident should be a wake up call. There are those on the religious right who are willing to sacrifice important health care services to the poor in order to advance their pro-life agenda. Until everyone has access to care, no matter what our personal beliefs about pregnancy termination, we must support Planned Parenthood and other women’s health organizations like it. That’s Pro-life too.