By Marsha Connet
I was more than a year overdue for my mammogram, but I was just a few months away from Medicare and knew I could wait it out. I had been purchasing my health insurance on the Wisconsin Exchange, so had few choices and ever fewer I could afford. Don’t get me wrong — I still believe the Affordable Care Act was one of the best things that could have happened for so many who previously had to patch together care in many less reasonable ways. My main issue had been the plan I chose assured me they covered my health care provider system — my primary care doc, my hospitals, etc. The first rude awakening was when I had my first mammogram with my new policy. They covered the cost of the center itself but the radiologists were not “in network” and I had to pay the charge myself. I never quite met my deductible, so I am paying for services on the long-term plan.
Medicare (cue the orchestra and the singing birds)! I was more than excited to enroll and was able to choose a Cadillac supplement and still pay half of what I paid on the Exchange. My first foray back into health care was to schedule my mammogram for the month my new insurance kicked in.
I had been following a number of conversations on Face Book about breast health and about 3D mammograms in particular. Then I got a call from my sister-in-law in Florida telling me she had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. She’d had the 3D mammogram and was crediting it for catching her cancer so early. As I was following her progress, I saw a retired nurse friend of mine on Face Book who was really promoting 3D mammography. She had beaten breast cancer once and now was facing a second diagnosis. She was making it her personal mission to reach out to as many women as she could to, first, get screened, and second, make it a 3D. Gayle called it her “silver lining.” If she could encourage even one woman to get a 3D mammogram and catch a diagnosis early, it would be the silver lining to her cloud of dealing with this dreaded disease again. She was going so far as linking women to no-cost programs and researching the costs. She found that in most cases where insurance wouldn’t pay for the 3D, the out of pocket was very affordable (about $35 on average).
The day for my mammogram arrived. I was almost giddy knowing I was doing something really good and there would be little or no out of pocket expense. The center I went to accommodated my request for a 3D, and I overheard them asking women checking in after me if they wanted it. Only about half said yes.
The procedure went well, until I noticed the technologist spending more time on one area and then doing some additional pictures. She was very professional, and I might not have noticed, except we had been chatting away during the early minutes and that had ground to a halt at the final moments. A tiny kernel of fear grabbed my heart, but I tried to ignore it. I went about my business knowing I’d hear one way or another in a few days or a week, and I was praying it would be a week. I checked in on Face Book with my sister-in-law and my friend Gayle. I told them both it was done and got a thumbs up from each.
I was settled in bed a couple nights later and looked over at the message light on my phone. Somehow I had missed a call. I pulled myself up in bed and checked the message: “Hello this is Linda from the Women’s Imaging Center. We’d like you to come back….” I immediately Face Book messaged Gayle. I decided my sister-in-law was going through enough and didn’t want to burden her with something that might be nothing. Gayle responded immediately — it was 11:30 pm her time. She went into best friend/nurse mode: “Do you want me to come up? I can go to your appointment with you. Don’t worry, the chances of this being a benign something are about 80%,” and on and on making me feel better. I told her not to make the trip all the way from Florida and promised to keep her in the loop. I called first thing the next morning and took the first appointment I could fit into my schedule, about a week away.
What dawned on me as I hung up from that phone call was I COULD schedule it. I now had insurance that would cover this return visit and anything else I would need. I wondered to myself if I had my old plan that covered small of amounts of only some of the care I might need, what would I have done? I now understood why people who can’t afford healthcare or those who can barely afford it are sicker and die more often. They have to give a life-saving appointment a second thought. What kind of system is it when the best health care in the world isn’t available for the people who need it?
I went to my follow-up appointment with a mix of fear and relief, knowing I could face whatever was ahead, and I had people who would be there to support me. The radiologist read the mammogram immediately while I waited and reported, to my relief, that everything was fine. I finally took a deep breath for what felt like the first time in a week.
My first text was to Gayle with the good news and the next were to my sister-in-law and my daughter. Big relief all around. Was I unhappy that the 3D picked up what at first appeared to be a problem? No, not one bit , because if it had been cancer, I would want to know right away. The one regret I have is that not all women have the peace of mind of great health coverage that I have. I’ve joined the ranks of friends talking up 3D mammograms and those pushing for a better health coverage system so no woman has to give follow-up a second thought.