Advertise - Print Edition

Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Alumni battles with cancer stress importance of health insurance

Published: October 5, 2012
Section: Features

While it may seem that health insurance shouldn’t be a top priority for people in their twenties, an age group normally assumed to be healthy, Allison Morse ’10 tells a story to the contrary. Now working in the university’s alumni office, Morse spent five years getting misdiagnosed before finally realizing that she had Stage IV Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Morse, who spoke to The Hoot following the tragic passing of Brian Paternostro ’08 and Seth Roberts ’06 from cancer this fall, described how despite experiencing varied symptoms, nobody ever expected she could have cancer.

“Throughout my time at Brandeis, I was getting increasingly fatigued, dealing with serious back pain and had unrelenting itchy skin. Each symptom was addressed as a separate issue, because 18 to 22 year olds are “too young to get cancer.” Once finally diagnosed, Morse endured chemotherapy for six months before celebrating remission.

Morse reports that “72,000 young adults between the ages of 18 and 39 are diagnosed with cancer each year, and this age group has had the lowest increase of survival rates of any other group. We often spend months or years being misdiagnosed and are more often diagnosed at later stages. College students don’t often realize that they can get cancer, especially since many symptoms are vague.”

Many types of cancer are common in young adults, from blood cancer to thyroid cancer. In addition, children who have chronic conditions such as asthma or diabetes grow into young adults but eventually are taken off their parent’s health insurance and left to fend for themselves.

Professor Michael Doonan (HS) insists that health insurance for young adults is vital. He describes circumstances where living without health insurance would be virtually impossible, such as for people who have had chronic conditions since childhood. He also adds that “the catastrophic costs of an illness such as cancer or major injuries sustained in a car crash can result in financial ruin for families without insurance. A parent’s worst nightmare should not be compounded by stress of collection agency action.”

Despite the need for insurance, Doonan reported that “close to eight million children in the United States are uninsured, [which is] roughly 10 percent.” These children usually come from disadvantaged households, and many grow up to experience health problems without the comfort of insurance.

Diana Denning, nurse manager at the Brandeis Health Center, also reports that the health center sees serious diseases that would require health insurance.

“We see a full range of conditions, chronic and acute injury and illness. We work with students and their established off-campus providers as well as facilitating access to local resources for specialty care and follow up as needed,” Denning said.

In order to prevent disaster, students should not only get health insurance, but also be very aware of their health care status,” Denning said. “It is ultimately the students responsibility to know the limitations and benefits of the insurance coverage they report,” she added.

Morse reports being thankful that she was under Brandeis insurance at the time of her diagnosis, yet it was an insurance she had to struggle to keep. “I underwent six months of chemotherapy every other Friday while working full time, largely so I wouldn’t lose my health insurance since I was not yet covered by FMLA.”

Students should also be aware of their risk for diseases. Denning recommends getting annual exams and preventive screening for cancer.

Thankfully, young adults are not alone and have not been abandoned by the overall public community. Under President Obama’s administration large changes have been put into effect, directly impacting children and young adults.

“President Obama reauthorized the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides comprehensive insurance coverage for uninsured children up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level,” Doonan said.

Soon, all families that can afford it will be required to possess health insurance. For students, “Obamacare has allowed young adults to stay on their parents’ health insurance plan until age 26. This has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of uninsured adults,” says Doonan.

Denning agrees that significant changes have been made in that regard, as well as because of Obama’s decree that young adults need to buy insurance. “Mandating that young adults must buy into the insurance pool and that insurance must cover preventive services helps young adults gain access to contraception, early screening and education.”

Morse’s story is a horror story. “I woke up one morning and my underarm was convex … the next day I noticed a lump on my collarbone. I immediately went to my doctor who took one look at me and sent me to Newton-Wellesley for a battery of scans and tests.”

Yet, with health policy changing rapidly and general checkups for possible signs of illness, other young adults, whether cognizant of insurance benefits or not, hope to escape a similar experience.