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Americares President and CEO Michael J. Nyenhuis leads a health-focused relief and development organization that saves lives and improves health for people affected by poverty or disaster.
We have cried together. A cancer diagnosis has a way of bringing about tears. We have forced ourselves to talk through the what-ifs. We have nervously watched test results while praying for good news. We have clung to every word that would give us hope.
What we have not done since my wife, Sandy (pictured above, with the author and their daughter), was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer early last year was worry about whether she would get the best possible care. She has had that care. In fact, we have had everything needed to fight the disease.
We have the gift of education and enough money to help us lead a healthy lifestyle, which put Sandy in the best position to fight cancer. My employer provided the flexibility I needed to focus on my wife’s health and good insurance that opened doors to quality care. We have access to one of the world’s top cancer centers. We are surrounded by a loving network of family, friends and a faith community that provides constant support.
Sandy has undergone two significant surgeries and weeks of chemotherapy treatments. At the outset, the odds were not in our favor. There is a 17 percent five-year survival rate for such cases. With all that we have on our side, however, Sandy appears to be an outlier. This week we are celebrating that she no longer needs treatment, but rather monitoring to catch the disease if it comes back. We have a long way to go to pass the five-year mark, but right now we are ecstatic about the prospect of a healthy 2018.
As the head of a global health nonprofit, I have seen health care at its best, and its worst: desperate doctors with no medicine to treat sick patients, health facilities in disrepair and shuttered clinics with no staff in sight. I am a proponent of health equity and as such am keenly aware of our privilege. As a result, I feel even more called to continue what I have spent most of my adult life working to do — ensure others can also access quality care.
Early on, as we faced the uncertainties of a cancer diagnosis, I thought about how even more frightening this must be for those who do not have access to care. The diagnosis and disease are bad enough. It should not be made worse by worry and desperation for effective tests, diagnosis and treatment.
My wife has undergone treatment over the past year during another national debate here in the U.S. about whether health care is a right, a commodity or a privilege. While that debate has died down for now, the daunting problems remain. Tens of millions of people are uninsured. The proposed solutions will cost billions of dollars. The debate can seem big and impersonal. But it’s not strictly about numbers. Health care is about people — people like my wife who spend their days in doctors’ offices and search for treatment options in hopes of making it to their child’s graduation or wedding day (our daughter is getting married in May!).
In our case, we cannot be sure how the story will end. Sandy’s strength and resilience has carried her to this new place of hope. The treatments appear to have worked. The medical team is upbeat, though cautioning us that we might have to deal with this again.
No matter what lies ahead, Sandy and I are grateful we have had every advantage and the strength to fight hard. My wish, my hope, is that one day everyone confronted with a similar situation can feel the same.
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