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I Beat Cancer at 26 — But I’ll Never Shake My Medical Debt

‘I didn't ask to almost die. So why am I being punished financially because I asked to survive?’

In 2015, Nathan B. was a typical 25-year-old, facing the same challenges as other millennials. He’d just quit his first full-time job in tech to land something more in line with his passion: working part-time with no benefits as an exhibit facilitator at a museum, while planning to head back to school and pick up a graduate degree.

“I knew that I had gotten myself into a strange financial situation,” Nathan, now 29 and living in Oklahoma City, tells MEL. “But I felt so much better about my mental health that I knew I was headed in the right direction.” He was beginning to finally find confidence in where his life was heading, he says. “I was just happy, which was huge!”

A month later, he got sick with what he thought was a bout of strep throat he couldn’t shake. That’s where we’ll pick up Nathan’s story.

Nathan in August 2015, before the initial doctor visit

A Punch to the Neck

My neck was swelled up like a balloon. I went to a walk-in clinic, paid $325 (over half my paycheck) for a shot to my bumbum, and within two days, my throat wasn’t swollen anymore. Three weeks later, it came back. Again I went to the doctor and paid  [about] $200 for some antibiotics. I was told to quit smoking and sent on my way. A week passed before the swelling went down the second time, but my throat continued to hurt for months afterward. I decided to stop smoking, thinking maybe it would help, and by August I was smoke-free.

Fast-forward to November. I had been in the gym almost daily. I was dieting properly, counting calories, checking macros, but was having a hard time staying active without exhausting myself.

After every workout I did, my legs were shakier than usual, my reaction time was slower than usual, and I didn’t feel like moving… but I just chalked it up to being worn-out. I remember doing some boxing and my sparring partner clipped my chin and hit me in the neck right above my collarbone. We laughed about it after the initial shock of what happened and decided to call it a day.

The next morning, my neck was sore where he hit me. I remember taking a shower, feeling the lump right above my collarbone and thought to myself that he left one hell of a goose egg. The only reason I found it strange was because it didn’t feel like a bruise. It didn’t feel like anything, really. My neck muscles were sore, but other than that, this small, quarter-sized lump just felt like jelly.

Nathan on the day before his first treatment

‘Fucking Call the Doctor!’

Every day after that, this little lump caught my attention. I would wake up, use the bathroom, pull my shirt collar down and look at this thing wondering when it was going to go away. Some days it looked larger; some days it almost hid under my skin. I didn’t worry too much about it though for the first few weeks because I didn’t feel like anything was wrong really. I got tired earlier in the day but that was it.

Christmas quickly approached and I traveled the two hours to go see my family. While I was there, I talked to my mom and older sister about this lump. They both seemed very concerned and tried to encourage me to go see a doctor. Easier said than done when I didn’t have insurance.

So I told them I was just going to wait it out and see what happens. I had just applied for insurance at $15 a month from the marketplace but it wouldn’t kick in until January 1st. I let them know that once January hit, I’d go see somebody.

Spoiler alert: I did not go see someone in January.

I didn’t go see a doctor because I think part of me was scared. I was scared of the $6,000 deductible I would have to pay. I was scared of my out-of-pocket expense. I was scared of what the doctor would say. I dragged my feet because I was horrified of what was about to happen.

Over those next few weeks of waiting, I started having strange issues. I had a rash on the back of my hand that wouldn’t go away no matter what treatment I tried to use. I had a blue spot that appeared in the center of my vision and was put on eye drops.

I was constantly hungry, eating food all the time, but I was also always sleepy. If I sat down for too long, I would end up falling asleep in a matter of seconds, which was strange because I rarely took naps. My legs were perpetually shaky, as if I had run a half-marathon, and I had a chronic pain in the middle of my back, through to the center of my chest, and up to my right shoulder.

One day, while I was at work, I was trying hard to carry myself across the floor to interact with employees and guests. I was made a supervisor at this time, so it was in my job description to relieve people for breaks, make sure they’re doing well, etc. As I’m walking across the floor, my legs collapsed underneath me. It sounds dramatic, and it felt really dramatic.

A couple of co-workers saw me and pulled me into a back area so I could sit. They called my girlfriend who worked with me and she came running down to check on me. She saw what shape I was in and was extremely adamant: “Fucking call the doctor!”

‘Nathan, It Looks Like You Might Have Cancer’

After the initial doctor’s visit, which was only $60, I waited around my house. Though the doctor told me that results may not [come] in for about a week, I got the call the next evening, around 6 p.m. He let me know my blood tests pointed to cancer, and what all had to be done, and how quickly we needed to get moving.

After that phone call, I sat back on the couch with my phone in my hand and just looked up at the ceiling. I felt weird. The room was quiet. My dogs were asleep. The TV was off and the sun had set while I was on the phone. I tried to call my mom. No answer. I tried to call my dad. No answer. I tried to call both of my sisters and my girlfriend. No answer.

At that point, with the doctor’s voice ringing in my ears — “cancer” — I realized how alone I was. In that moment, I was by myself and this seemed like a journey I was going to have to travel alone. The emotion was too much for me. I broke down and cried.

‘If I Go Without Eating, I’ll Be Able to Pay This Off’

During the next couple of months, I was seeing doctors three times a week. I was still in school, still trying to work, and every day [I was] bombarded with news. Whether it was phone calls from doctors, scheduled radiology appointments, test results, biopsies, surgeries, researching on my own, trying to make it through school, planning out finances, etc., there was always something going on.

Not much time had passed after that biopsy before my primary care physician called me with the news. That’s the day I found out it was lymphoma, it was definitely malignant, and it needed to be removed quickly — so my doctor scheduled an appointment at another hospital to get the tumor removed. Surgery was in a few days, so I had time to prepare.

During those few days, I had started getting mail. Honestly, most of the mail that comes to my house is junk. If it came in a Blue Cross envelope, it usually means they’re trying to get me to enroll in another plan or whatever, so I didn’t bother opening anything. I had never been this ill before, so I had no idea that those were my medical bills until after my parents dropped in for a quick visit and my mom told me I needed to open these envelopes.

Panic set in when she told me they were bills. The last thing I wanted was to be late making a payment. So I opened the first envelope: $90. Okay, not too bad. I opened the second: $500. Oh boy, I thought, this is probably as bad as it will get. I opened the one from my community hospital: $1,360, due in 90 days. All of the sudden, my brain went into freakout mode. Okay, I thought, I make $500 a paycheck. If I go without eating for six weeks, I’ll be able to pay this off.

Nathan two weeks after his first treatment
Nathan three weeks after his first treatment

‘Nobody in My Family Was Financially Set’

Looking at those bills was what made the situation super-real for me. Like, with the hospital visits, they told me to jump and I jumped. No questions asked. It had to be done. Be here tomorrow at this time? Okay.

However, with the bills, it was different. They lingered. I had to sit on this bill until I could make a payment. It was on my desk, looming, waiting for me to mail it off with a check.

Bills were grown-up shit, and at 26, I still felt like a 16-year-old. Sure, I had a car payment, a mortgage, electricity and city bills, but those were fixed prices. These random bills at random prices were about to fuck me in the ass.

My parents offered to help pay. I appreciated it, but honestly, nobody in my family was financially set to take on this kind of burden. Again, I felt like it was really up to me to be able to do as much as I could on my own.

After the initial shock of the medical bills, I made it priority to come home every day and open every single envelope, plan accordingly and make it top priority to pay back medical debt when I could.

A selfie with Nathan’s girlfriend after the tumor removal
Nathan after the tumor removal

‘I Almost Fell Out of My Chair When He Told Me the Cost: About $200,000’

I met with a ear, nose and throat specialist who denied that I had cancer. He looked at my chart, told me the previous doctors were wrong and told me I was overreacting. He told me that “lymphoma and cat scratch fever look like the same thing.” I told him my cat had scratched me recently. “I really think it’s just cat scratch fever, and there’s no need to go through with this surgery,” he said.

My god, I was pissed. I ended up leaving that hospital more confused than when I went in. I called my primary care physician and let him know what the specialist had said. He got quiet and said, “I’ll call you back in a minute.”

Five minutes later, the specialist called me back and apologized. I don’t know what was said over the phone to him, but all of the sudden, the ear, nose and throat specialist was willing and eager to do my tumor removal and final biopsy. I don’t remember exactly what it cost to have this doctor tell me I had cat scratch fever, but I think it was around $120.

At its biggest, the lump was about half the size of a golf ball. But when they pulled the tumor out, it was about the size of a [dry eraser]: 2 inches by 2 inches by 6 inches. He said it went all the way from my collarbone down to the middle of my chest. To wrap up the appointment, he told me my primary care physician would be handling my appointments from now on and he would be sending me a bill in the mail.

But I wasn’t out of the woods yet. I had to do three rounds of treatments that included two rounds each, every other week, for six months.

Nathan halfway through treatment

I asked my doctor how much everything would cost. I almost fell out of my chair when he told me: [about] $200,000. Maybe more.

Even after my deductible, I still had something like a 10 percent out-of-pocket fee to pay, which is a disgusting amount of money I couldn’t choke up. So my older sister made a GoFundMe page. I told her I appreciated it, but I didn’t expect many people to donate to it.

Once again, I thought wrong. Within the first six hours, she had accumulated around $2,000 from friends and family. I was in complete awe of the donations and messages sent from my small town of roughly 2,000 people.

$100 Away From Being Homeless

I’m going to try and give a general breakdown and thought process of my finances. At first, it was sort of easy to keep up with everything. That surprise $1,300 check was able to be broken down into payments. I reached my deductible by May, so most of my surgeries cost me about $1,200 (since I still owed 10 percent).

When the whole year passed, I think I was at around the $300,000 range, according to Blue Cross Blue Shield, which meant I owed [roughly] $30,000. A lot of that money ended up being covered, but not all of it by a long shot. The way my insurance worked then was I had two deductibles to pay: out-of-pocket, then a percentage co-pay. My initial out-of-pocket was [about] $5,600. After I paid that, BCBS would cover some things 100 percent, but not all things.

I had to pay 10 percent to the radiology department for my scans every few weeks. So every month, I was getting a $1,600 check. I had a $60 doctor’s visit that I paid every other week for six months.

They covered the cost of my chemo, but wouldn’t cover the cost of my Neulasta shots (to keep my white blood cells up so I wouldn’t get sick), so that was another $300 charge. I had to pay $2,000 for the X-rays.

It was really confusing figuring out what I was going to have to pay for and what insurance would cover. The truth is, and I hate to make this even mildly political, but without GoFundMe, and just general donations from people, and fundraisers that my graduating class had put on, I would not have been able to do it at all. There were multiple paychecks from friends and family that were gifted to us. One month, I think we were gifted close to $5,000, and within two weeks it was gone.

Sometimes it’s still hard, but without my community, I was looking at filing for bankruptcy. I was always $100 away from selling my house to move in with my girlfriend’s parents, selling my car and getting a bicycle or something… $100 away from living bare-bones and barely being able to skirt by. We came close a few times through those few months, but somehow, some way, another donation came through.

Still to this day, I think about what everyone did for me and am extremely grateful. When I have free time, I try to visit my parents’ office and stop around town to see everyone now, or give back to the community when I can. Whether it’s free PC maintenance, or any low-voltage electronics service, I’m always happy to make the drive, stop in and see my family and help whomever out.

In the chemo room, September 2016
Valentine’s Day with Nathan and his girlfriend, 2017
Nathan one year after remission (left) and the day he was cleared (right)

‘I Feel Like a Bowling Ball Is Directly Over My Head’

I still get frustrated.

I didn’t ask to get cancer. I didn’t ask to lose 40 percent of my lung functionality. I would have liked to have kids one of these years, but that doesn’t look like it will happen thanks to chemo. I didn’t want to lose feeling in parts of my body, have bone and joint pain for the rest of my life. I didn’t ask to almost die. So why am I being punished financially because I asked to survive?

I think the worst part about all of the finances is now I’m struggling to save money for the future. Lymphoma is a cancer that lingers. In some cases, like in older patients, it stays gone forever, then the patient dies of old age, never having to worry about it again.

In my case, I was 26. The oncologist mentioned that by the time I’m 40, he would be surprised if I didn’t have to go through treatment again. So now I’m 29. I work a full-time job with benefits, with the looming threat that my cancer will come back in about 10 years, and despite living somewhat frugally, I may have to shell out the hundreds of thousands of dollars alone next time. I feel like I got lucky the first time with everyone’s willingness to help, but next time, I may not be.

I feel like something is holding a bowling ball directly over my head. I don’t know when it will drop, or if it will drop. But by keeping an eye on it, and constantly preparing, maybe I can avoid it hurting so bad when it does finally fall.

Nathan and his girlfriend in May 2018

— As told to Quinn Myers