The Cost of Breast Cancer: How I Coped With a Terminal Diagnosis

Nora Zelevansky

EmilyWe published this personal story about Emily’s battle with breast cancer in honor of October, Breast Cancer Awareness month. Emily chronicled her journey through her blog, The Bright Side: Breast Cancer at 31, bringing to life the highs, lows and very human experience of being diagnosed with such a serious disease at such a young age.

In this essay, she reveals another side of illness not often explored—the toll it takes financially. Emily passed away on September 27, 2013, at the age of 35. We are proud to tell her story and to remember Emily, who we knew and loved.

-The LearnVest Editors

New Year’s weekend 2010 I was feeling pretty good.

I had been happily working as an account director at a small New York City–based public relations firm for three and a half years. The job had already taken me to amazing destinations across the world: Bora Bora, London, and on a cruise to Greece and Turkey, to name a few.

That fall I’d been especially busy, but I’d kept up with everything and really enjoyed it. Most evenings I’d return to the one-bedroom apartment I owned in Hoboken, N.J., and feel pretty satisfied. I was doing well for 31 years old.

It was only a few days into the new year when I changed into pajamas and saw that my right breast looked not quite right—like the nipple was squished. I imagined that maybe I’d leaned on it, but the next morning it still looked strange.

I was nervous, but I got up the nerve and did a self breast exam. I didn’t find a lump, but my whole right breast felt hard, completely different than the left one. I called my mother on the way to work and she insisted I make a doctor’s appointment. I did. That first doctor seemed unconcerned and sent me for a perfunctory mammogram and sonogram two days later.

I went to that fateful appointment on Thursday by myself. After the sonogram, as I was still laying on the table, the radiologist and breast surgeon came into the room together and broke the news: I needed to have a biopsy immediately to confirm what they suspected—breast cancer.

“Is there any chance it could be something else?” I asked.

“I really don’t think so,” replied the surgeon. “If the biopsy came back negative, I would redo it.” That’s how sure she was.

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They had to squeeze me into the schedule, so I waited around all day. I called my mother first from an unused storage room they gave me for privacy, and she and my father got into the car instantly and drove the hour to meet me. I called my boss to say I wouldn’t be coming back to work that day. I cried.

My parents arrived, I had the biopsy, and the tests confirmed what we’d already suspected: I had cancer.

The First Few Months With Cancer

After a series of tests and doctor’s appointments, I learned that specifically I had cancer in my breasts and liver. I would need chemotherapy for four months to shrink the tumors, a mastectomy on one side, liver surgery ten days later, and then breast radiation.

Already, the prices without insurance would have been staggering. I was lucky in the sense that I had decent health insurance (an employer-sponsored policy through Oxford that took an automatic $412.01 out of my paycheck each month), an understanding boss and a supportive family. After the $1,000 annual deductible, there was a 20% coinsurance charge with a $3,000 maximum. I didn’t necessarily know it then, but I’d be maxing that out each year for as long as I was sick. That meant at least $4,000 out-of-pocket each year, not counting copays, prescription costs or doctors who were out of network.

My treatments continued until that next spring 2011, when I had a clear PET scan. I was in remission!

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Unfortunately, the celebration only lasted a few months. My August scan showed that the cancer was back in my liver and there was a spot on my spine, and they gave me two radiation treatments—and started me on another round of chemo. It was a devastating blow.

  • Angie Young

    Thank you for sharing your story. You are incredibly brave and strong. Peace be with you.

  • Jennifer Osborn

    My condolences to Emily’s family. She sounds like she was a wonderful person who was taken much too soon.

  • susanjohnston

    This is a heartbreaking story but I appreciate Emily’s willingness to share it. My heart goes out to her friends and family during what must be an unspeakably difficult time.

  • Lesley Hanson

    Lesley Hanson – Trinidad and Tobago

    I think this artilce should be on the front page of every newspaper so that all can see the necessity of having Health Insurane.

  • Globetrotting Mommy

    What a wonderful story about my friend Emily. I will miss her tremendously.

  • Helene

    Great Article. I have cancer and I can relate to all the bills. I have received some help from my local hospital because my husband was layed off from his job. Emily was a very strong and brave person…..This article should help alot of people…..

  • Kat

    This is a great story–thank you for sharing. I visited Emily’s blog–what a truly special person she seems to have been.

  • Halle

    Thank you for sharing this story with us. Emily’s bravery through her fight with cancer is inspiring and touching. I hope that this story spreads far and wide. She was beyond amazing and everyone should hear her story.

  • Lena

    This is such a touching story. I was moved to tears. Thanks LearnVest for posting/sharing and my thoughts are with Emily’s family. Praying they can find some comfort in these sad days.

  • LJ

    Thank you, LearnVest for sharing the story of such a great individual. I am inspired by her hard work and dedication even in the face of such adversity.

  • Lisa

    What a beautiful way to document such a sad and scary time! Emily makes a brave decision to share something so personal and so difficult to talk about and in doing so, she helps her readers understand and appreciate another side to dealing/coping with cancer: money and preparation. I have a friend who is uninsured and dealing with her breast cancer and I know the financial side of the equation is equally as daunting as healing herself! I’m so sorry for Emiliy’s family and friends to have lost such a bright and enterprising young women. Thank you for sharing her story; it has insprired me to get involved with my own long-term health insurance options.

  • Sherine P

    What a story, my condolences go out to Emily’s family .
    A family friend is suffering from BC and it doesn’t look good but she fights every day! These women exemplify strength. I was going to give proceeds of my pink swarovski embellished eyewear sales (on to Susan G. Komen… but maybe the Pink Daisy Project may be my choice. I hope emily is at peace.

  • Sharon

    Condolences to Emily’s family… this story was so sad (I am crying at my desk at work right now), but I am glad that LearnVest published her story to keep a bit of Emily alive.

  • Sasha

    All I can say about this post is anyone who thinks America is the greatest country in the world is wrong. The fact that health care is equated to a luxury item in this country is disgusting. I lost my mother because of it.

    My Mom was my best friend, and the greatest person I’ve known in my life but she was unemployed and had to health insurance so she used the approach to health care that a huge amount of people are forced to rely on – ignore it and hope it goes away. It didn’t.

    By the time she couldn’t ignore it anymore and she told me she wasn’t feeling well, I took her to a doctor where they diagnosed her with stage four breast cancer. She was diagnosed in April 2008 and she died in December of that same year. Those few months of treatment completely bankrupted her.

    If we had lived in a country with socialized medicine like the rest of the civilized world, it likely would have been caught earlier, and I would probably still have a mother.

  • April

    Thank you Emily and your family for sharing. It’s something most people probably don’t even think about until it happens to them. I agree with the comment that said it should be on the front page of every newspaper as to WHY everyone needs health insurance. THIS is why.

  • Holly

    My goodness – what a moving article and blog. My condolences to Emily’s family and “entourage.” There is a lot to be learned from this article, about finances and life!

  • Molly Debroy

    This article is such an honest account of a very confusing time in Emily’s short but meaningful life. Her blog is truly her legacy. Rest in peace.

  • kgal1298

    So sad. This is also why I know people who have been doctors who choose to forgo treatment and instead spend their last days with the least amount of pain as possible and of course living because they know there is only so much time and sometimes it’s better to pass quickly than to prolong it, but in life the greatest fear we have is death. Which is also the reason with finances I’ve always been in the middle morality is just that once we’re dead does debt or riches matter? Not as much as making sure you live each day and make the most of it at least not from my view point. it’s sad she didn’t get more time though. RIP.

  • robin

    Thank you for this story. I had a lump in my breast at age 30 but I was fortunate it was benign. This could have been my story if I was not so lucky. Blessings to Emily’s family. She was a terrific person.

  • Kenishia Mais

    May Emily’s beautiful soul rest in peace. I was literally moved to tears while reading this. I tremendously thank for sharing her story. This is really a wake up call for me personally, as it relates to making further preparations for life’s happenings. Admittedly, I have never seriously thought about health or life insurance seriously until this very day, it was always a fleeting thought. Guaranteed, my weekend will be spent reminding those dearest to me how much I love and appreciate them, and finding myself good life and health insurance policies. Emily seemed to have been such a bright, cheerful and loving person – it’s apparent that the world lost a great woman much too soon.