Cancer canceled my 2019. After 37 years of near-perfect health, I became one of tens of millions of Americans who went bankrupt due to illness.
Last month at an ABC News town hall, President Donald Trump claimed that his new health care plan would cover individuals with preexisting conditions. But Trump says lots of things. And his goal since 2016 has been to repeal the Affordable Care Act and its protections, as his administration argued before the Supreme Court in June. If Trump and his Republican enablers win reelection and finish the job, I will be uninsurable.
Rates of cancer are rising in young people, but it’s harder for us to get diagnosed. I was so sick that I spent nights on the floor of my bathroom, wrapped in towels in front of a heater, shaking from chills and soaked in sweat. Medical providers told me it was mono, but it kept getting worse. I fought for a month with my private insurer to cover a CT scan for my visibly swollen abdomen.
It turned out I had advanced non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a blood cancer that moves and pools through your lymphatic system. My own immune system was killing me from the inside out.
In Trump’s America, the belief that illness and poverty are moral failings is killing us from the inside out. I had two master’s degrees and was working as a psychotherapist at a community mental health clinic when I was diagnosed. After I ran through paid vacation and six weeks of unpaid family medical leave, I lost my job and my health insurance.
Cancer, like COVID-19, requires a community response to save lives. My mother paid my rent and I lived off public assistance, food stamps and GoFundMe donations. I was also fortunate to live in New York, a state that has worked to expand access to Medicaid, so that I was able to get care at one of the best hospitals in the world despite being unemployed.
There is no safety net, not even for a college-educated, employed, insured white man like myself. My mother and stepfather (who was already battling prostate cancer) raided their retirement account. I lost my savings. My credit is shot. I still owe thousands of dollars in medical bills (from the time I was privately insured).
Privilege takes many shapes and forms in American life. It’s covert and overt, it’s red, blue and definitely white, it’s seen and more often unseen ― not having a preexisting condition is a privilege. I’ve lost the weight I gained, and my hair has grown back. Most of my scars are easily hidden: an incision along my abdomen where my spleen once lived; a compromised ability to fight off infection; fiery neuropathy pain in my hands and feet, a side effect of chemotherapy.
Though the cancer “survivor” is held up as sacred in America, the experience is profane. My deus ex machina was the “red devil,” the colloquial name for Adriamycin, an insidious but effective chemo drug that kills cells, both good and evil.
Chemo is grotesque: from bloody hemorrhoids to blistering mouth sores, hair loss, night sweats, steroid-induced rages, skin rashes. I didn’t feel angelic on the floor, bloated, bald, covered in my own blood and shit, cradling vomit in my hands. I was fully human, naked, alone, afraid.
The mythology of the survivor is part of our problem in 21st-century America. We like to think people can do everything on their own. I didn’t beat cancer. Chemo, my family and even my government saved my life. If we don’t care for each other, what else is community for?
I’ve spent my entire life working in public service: with underserved children and adults, developmentally disabled individuals, and the homeless. As a hospital chaplain, I held people’s hands as they slipped into the next life. The only difference between myself and those I served were the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
I now work with upward of 20 clients a week as a psychotherapist in private practice. I’m holding space and bearing witness to people’s pain as they live through the traumas and stressors of America in 2020. Many of my clients have lost their employer-based insurance, but they don’t deserve to face this alone, so my small business struggles.
I am still at risk of relapse for the next four years; if lymphoma does come back, my only option will be a bone marrow transplant. I would have to spend months masked and in quarantine without the ability to fight off the simplest cold let alone the novel coronavirus.
But I am more fearful of Donald Trump and his Republican enablers making America “great again” than the thought of my cancer returning.
Trump is not immoral but amoral; his enablers are either practicing avarice, or, in the words of Hannah Arendt, the banality of evil, while hundreds and sometimes even 1,000 Americans die a day from COVID-19 and more pass from deaths of despair like addiction and suicide.
Making America “great” means limiting access, resources and opportunities to everyone, even the most fervent supporters of the president, who continue to seek to end access to health care for millions of Americans regardless of political affiliation.
This election, my life and millions of others depend on people voting for candidates who support policies that protect individuals from catastrophic illness, not leave them to die alone.
Andrew J. Rosenthal, MDiv LCSW, is a psychotherapist practicing in New York City.