I first noticed the strange bump on my neck in August 2016, the fall semester of my senior year of college in South Carolina. I was doing my makeup in the mirror and swallowed, and there it was. That’s not supposed to be there, I thought to myself. I swallowed a few more times just to make sure I wasn’t seeing things—each time, the bump appeared on the left side of my throat.
At that moment, I thought back to the annual physical I’d just had in Atlanta, and reminded myself that my bloodwork had been normal. Still, I tried (and failed) to get an out-of-state referral from my primary care doc‚ but she didn’t seem especially concerned. Because I wasn’t experiencing any unusual symptoms (extreme weight changes, exhaustion), she said I shouldn’t worry too much about having the mass looked at ASAP. So, I went about my life—working, taking classes, job searching—and put off getting the lump looked at…for an entire year.
I mentioned the mass again, this time to my ob-gyn, during a routine checkup in August 2017. She referred me to an endocrinologist (aka, a doctor who specializes in hormones) who ordered bloodwork, which came back normal. After a few more hoops I had to jump through—having a hematologist OK a biopsy due to my blood disorder called von Willebrand Disease, and an ear, nose, and throat doctor giving me the all-clear—my endocrinologist scheduled a biopsy for December to confirm the mass wasn’t cancerous or otherwise dangerous.
Unsurprisingly at the time, the biopsy yielded good results: In January, I was told the tumor was benign, and my doctor suggested to have the mass checked on a yearly basis, which I did. But in November 2019, I got startling news from an endocrine surgeon (recommended to me by a new endocrinologist in Los Angeles) who told me the mass should have been operated on sooner due to its size. She explained that thyroid masses are generally removed when they’re at least 3 centimeters large—mine was 4.8 centimeters.
My surgery was performed in March 2020—a partial thyroidectomy, during which half of my thyroid was removed—and I was diagnosed with minimally invasive follicular thyroid cancer the day after. It’s a rare type of cancer, but my new doctor said it could’ve been diagnosed when I first sought help in 2017, had my previous endocrinologist decided to remove the mass then.
It was devastating news, of course, to hear that I had thyroid cancer. But, fortunately, the surgeon removed it all. I still wasn’t out of the woods, though. At the time of my diagnosis, I was given two options: Have the rest of my thyroid removed (which would force me to be on medication for the rest of my life), or keep the other half of my thyroid, but undergo bloodwork and ultrasound tests every six months to monitor the cancer.
I chose the bi-annual tests—the option seemed preferable at the time to having my entire thyroid removed at 25 years old. Then in June, just three months after my surgery and diagnosis, I lost my job because of COVID-19. I counted myself lucky at the time: Because of my age, I was still covered by my parents’ insurance (the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, mandates that young adults can stay covered that way until they turn 26)—but for me, that changes next month.
I turn 26 in November. Before I lost my job, I’d planned on switching to my employer-offered health insurance plan. But now, without a job, the reality of not having accessible, affordable health insurance is becoming very real, very fast.
At the moment, I’m able to be covered under the ACA—even with my preexisting conditions—once I turn 26, should I still be unemployed. The plan will cost me about $200 each month, and I’ll pay for my tests out of pocket until I hit my deductible. It’s not ideal, but it’s necessary; without health insurance, it’d be even more difficult for me to undergo my cancer screenings—something that may someday detect cancer again and ultimately prevent it from spreading throughout my body.
But the future of the ACA isn’t certain right now—in fact, starting November 10, the Supreme Court is set to start hearing arguments against the ACA to determine its constitutionality. The ACA could be overturned, leaving at least 20 million Americans who are currently covered through the ACA marketplaces or have Medicaid through the law without health insurance immediately, and many, many more would lose the protections that mandate coverage for those with preexisting conditions, like me. (President Donald Trump has said that, should the ACA be struck down, a different health care initiative would replace it. However, substantial details about the replacement plan—and its potential impact on people with preexisting conditions—have not been released.)
Presidential candidate (and former vice president) Joe Biden, however, has a plan to not only keep the ACA intact, but expand on it, should he be elected as president. It’s why I’m voting for him (and encouraging others to), because it’s terrifying to think about the ACA—the most affordable, inclusive health plan out there right now for unemployed people—being taken out from under me when I need it most. And it’s not just Biden; in order to affect change, compassionate leaders must be voted in at all levels, to ensure that everyone in America has a fair shot at the best health care possible.
It’s a strange position to be in: Realizing how desperately I need health insurance to avoid insurmountable medical bills at such a young age. At the start of 2020, I never dreamed I’d be diagnosed with cancer, laid off, and potentially without health insurance, all within the span of three months. But now that I’m here, I realize more than ever the importance of making sure all Americans have access to affordable care, regardless of their health or employment status. And the way we get there is by using our voices to vote.
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