Long before Trumpcare, at the age of 15, I was diagnosed with mucoepidermoid carcinoma. It’s a mouthful, I know. This type of carcinoma is a cancer of the parotid gland, one of the salivary glands. This carcinoma also happens to be quite rare, and at the time, doctors were still unsure of how and why it occurs. My treatment plan included two surgeries, hundreds of appointments with oncologists, pediatricians, ENTs, nurses, pathologists, etc., physical rehabilitation, and six weeks of radiation therapy.
Fast forward over 10 years later and I’m still a cancer survivor. My community, Pinaymootang First Nation, Ojibwe, is small and has over 2,000 enrolled status Indians, and out of those diagnosed with any type of cancer from my community, I’d say I’m one of the first survivors. I’m definitely grateful to be a survivor and don’t take any of my days on this earth for granted. I’m also honored to have inspired many others to pursue treatments and to continue the fight for minobimaadiziwin, the good life.
Enjoy films for and about real Indians Natives when you download our special free report, 50 Must-See Modern Native Films and Performances!
A major task of being a cancer survivor is to continue routine checkups, be mindful of the risks of radiation cancer, skin cancer, and other radiation related injuries. We can certainly say I’m someone with pre-existing health concerns, which is a salient topic in the media and legislation today with the proposed American Health Care Act.
Current health care plans are not affordable, at least not for my pocket book, and buying an insurance plan comes at the cost of not affording something else, like tuition and fees. I had to seek a job that offered health benefits so I could continue my routine health care. Without health benefits, I was risking my health and wellbeing as I could not manage checkups and radiation-caused thyroid disease on my own.
Thankfully, a friend recommended I join her office, I applied, was hired, and gained access to insurance in time to need new health treatments. Just last week, I completed six weeks of hyperbaric medicine treatments for preventative medicine against further radiation injuries. The EOB, or explanation of benefits, came back, and over $60,000 in health care later, I am back on track for good health.
Another fortunate event for me, my job switched health care insurance providers before I started treatment. If I had remained with my last insurance company, according to my math, I would have been responsible for roughly $11,000 of the bill; instead I was nearly completely covered. As a First Nations person, I don’t qualify for any help with Indian Health Services in the U.S., nor do I qualify for the free health coverage in Canada as I haven’t lived there for years, and I don’t qualify for Medicaid either. If a string of fortunate events did not occur, quite frankly I’d be out of luck and facing large medical bills or bone disease – the issue I needed to prevent. Both circumstances were unwelcome.
What about other Native people, elders, or veterans that don’t qualify or can afford much needed health services, or those without the recent good luck I’ve come across? It’s very expensive to prevent any kind of sickness, and even more expensive to be sick. A coffin should not be more affordable than living. So what do we do?
We write our senators, we use our votes accordingly, and we advocate for better access to health care and lower costs, immediately. The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, helped millions in the sense that more were afforded health care with programs such as Medicaid, but costs still remained high for others. With the proposed American Health Care Act, a.k.a. Trumpcare, costs will allegedly be lowered for some but people with pre-existing conditions like me will have more difficulty qualifying for health insurance and then affording it if they qualify. So advocate for the best health care we can dream of and write your senator today!
Lastly, if you’re facing cancer or cancer treatments, do it. Trumpcare, Obamacare, I.H.S. care, it doesn’t matter, do what you got to do. Surviving cancer is not pretty, and it may still hurt when you’re all done, but it’s worth it. I got through my last treatments not just for me, but for our future generations and our continued existence as Native people. With all my ancestors have endured with colonization, residential schools, forced relocation, and other genocidal tactics, the least I could do is endure needle pokes, hyperbaric treatments, surgery, and all the likes for our future generations and the good life.
Best wishes of good health to each of you.
Tessa McLean, Ojibwe, is a student, scholar, and activist from Pinaymootang First Nation. McLean is a United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues delegate, and a member of American Indian Movement Colorado.