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Medicare And “The Big C”

SENIOR MOMENTS with Orion Steen


I remember May 26,1960 very well.  It was my 16th birthday.  That’s really a milestone – finally being old enough to get a drivers’ license.  I could finally go on a date without my father driving.  But that isn’t why I remember May 26, 1960 so vividly. It’s because that was the day that my baby brother was born!


Our whole family was excited.  I had a little brother and it was very happy time.  We all spoiled him and he never lacked for anything.  When I did get my driver’s license, he was often my passenger.  We loved him very much and he was an important part of my life.  Then came the day we all pray will never happen.


My brother had just turned nine.  I was getting married in a few days and all wrapped up in final preparations.  I got a call from my parents asking me to meet with them after work.  “Son, your little brother has cancer”.  Cancer?  No way.  My grandmother had died a horrible death with cancer.  But, she was older.  Little kids don’t get cancer, do they?  He looked fine.  Maybe it was a mistake.  But it wasn’t a mistake.


Surgery was scheduled the day before my wedding and we all gathered in the waiting room at the hospital.  When the doctor finally came out, he told us it was worse than he had originally thought.  The cancer had spread. He had tried to remove all of the tumors but, there were no guarantees.  My brother came to the wedding, all smiles, wearing his new suit, and sitting in a wheelchair.


I think they call it “The Big C” because it’s such a formidable enemy.  We’re almost afraid to say the word, Cancer.  Nearly every family faces it in one form or another.  Yet, no one is ever completely prepared for it and the life changes that it brings.  Eleven months following his first surgery, the doctors determined that my brother’s cancer had returned.  My parents and my brother flew to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota and I joined them the next day.  Surgery was scheduled for the following day, our birthday (his 10th).  My dad asked the doctors to reschedule his surgery, and under the circumstances, they postponed it another day.


We had a small party for him in his hospital room while dreading the next day.  He was wheeled into surgery early the next morning.  We settled in for what we thought would be a long wait and were surprised when the staff of doctors joined us in a relatively short time.  I remember it like yesterday.  They told us that the cancer was so widely spread, trying to remove it would surely have killed him.  They could only send him home with a guesstimate of six weeks to six months to live.


The balance of that trip was a blur for me, because I was so upset.  However, my parents had a plan.  They never shared the prognosis of the Mayo doctors with my brother.  They tried to be very positive around him.  They said that whatever time was left, they would share every day of it with him.  They both got a leave of absence from their jobs and decided to take him on a trip to see as much of the United States as they could for as long as he could comfortably enjoy it.


Enjoy it he did!  He didn’t realize that Mom and Dad had sold their partially built retirement home in the mountains to help finance the trip. The only pain that he remembered was the injections from experimental drugs that had no names, just code numbers.  It was recommended, under the circumstances, that maybe those drugs would be his only chance.  He underwent chemotherapy, and only worried about losing his hair.   Newspapers had picked up his story and people around the country were praying for him.  This was ten years before the “Make A Wish Foundation” was created, but he received and accepted invitations for special events from around the country.


As the six weeks turned into six months, my parents noticed something truly remarkable.  My brother wasn’t wasting away as expected, but was growing and thriving.  Yet another trip to the Mayo Clinic was planned.  The same staff of doctors performed the same surgery as before, and in a short time, once again made a report to my parents.  “They could see where the cancer had been, but it was no longer there”.  My brother was declared cancer free.  It never returned.


This is a true story.  Most don’t have such a positive ending.  What does this have to do with Medicare?  People across the country, many of whom are on Medicare, continue to fight “The Big C”.  Unlike many illnesses, cancer can drag on and on for months and years.  A good friend of mine was diagnosed with lung cancer.  They removed part of one lung and told him if he could successfully remain cancer free for 5 years, he probably wouldn’t have a reoccurrence.  After 4 years and 7 months, a malignant tumor appeared on his other lung.


We depend on Medicare.  Coupled with a comprehensive supplement, it will pay most of the hospital and doctor costs to fight cancer.  Unfortunately, many people don’t have a comprehensive insurance plan and many costs are non-medical.  Often, after years of paying many of the costs from their own incomes and savings, the cancer lingers or reoccurs after the resources to pay the claims have dried up.  Usually, it’s impossible to switch to a more comprehensive plan, once we have been diagnosed with cancer.


A recent study has shown that 60% of the indirect costs of cancer are not covered by health insurance.  The indirect costs are things like loss of work and income.  Travel costs often include other family members, lodging, and meals away from home.  I have a friend who had been diagnosed with cancer.  He shared with me how he traveled five days a week for five months from Casa Grande to The Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale to receive his Chemotherapy treatments.


Several months ago, in this column, I addressed the issue of Medicare not covering many people who are recovering from surgeries and illnesses in a nursing home.  Quite often those nursing home stays are cancer related.


It wasn’t until many years after my brother’s cancer illness, that I found out the financial sacrifices my parents had made during that time.  Not only did they lose income by taking time off from their jobs, but they completely changed their plans for retirement.  I’m sure they dipped into their retirement funds more than just a few times.


When I started my own insurance business in the early eighties, I was introduced to a new concept.  Insurance companies were offering policies that paid many of those indirect costs of fighting cancer.  It made sense to me.  I bought a policy then and have had it more than 30 years.  Today, the options are even better.  You can buy a lump sum policy in increments of $10,000.00.  When diagnosed with melanoma or internal cancer, the money can be used for anything you need.


When Mom and Dad turned 65, I made sure they had the most comprehensive Medicare supplement policies that I could provide.  As sort of an afterthought, I shared with them what I had learned about the plan that helps pay those indirect costs that the insurance doesn’t cover.  All Dad said was, “Sign us up!”    


Orion Steen is a licensed agent and specializes in Medicare supplemental plans.  He has been advising his clients on life and health insurance matters in Arizona for over 45 years.  He can be reached for related questions by E-mail at info@orionsteeninsurance.com, call toll-free 888-846-6891 or cell 623-846-6891.