*I originally published this essay on May 15, 2013 on another blog I write. Little did I know that one year later, I would be in the same position.
Over the past few days, the Internet has been abuzz with Angelina Jolie's revelation that she had a preventative double mastectomy because she was at an 87 percent risk of developing breast cancer. Additionally, Ms. Jolie, according to sources, is planning on having her ovaries removed, because she is also at high-risk for developing ovarian cancer, the disease that her mother succumbed to at age 56. I commend Ms. Jolie for her proactive choices, particularly because she is a mother of six, but also because she made informed choices based on genetic testing. While we can never be sure of our fates, it is sometimes a good idea to not tempt that very fate by doing nothing.
Conversely, what Ms. Jolie has done is not an option for the vast majority of women. The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic testing she underwent costs more than $3,000, according to her New York Times op-ed essay. She did not mention whether or not the tests were covered by insurance, instead stating that those tests are an "obstacle" for many women in the United States. That obstacle is what I want to talk about.
Ms. Jolie has evolved since entering the public eye in the mid-90s. At first, she was the quintessential "wild child," but has since become a United Nations ambassador, and a dedicated humanitarian, who advocates for the populations of underdeveloped countries. She has adopted children from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Ethiopia. She has given birth to three biological children. She is an Oscar-winning actress, and an accomplished director. Oh, and let's not forget about Brad Pitt. But, what has she done to advocate for American women?
At first, you would think that American women do not need help from the likes of Angelina Jolie. But, the sad reality is, we do indeed. The United States might be the leader of the industrialized world, but we are sorely lacking when it comes to taking care of our health. While the women in the countries Ms. Jolie fights for have much less than we do, we are still woefully ill-informed, and dangerously unprotected when it comes to managing our health. That is something someone with a high profile needs to do something about.
It is very easy for celebrities, and people who are financially secure, to tell their stories about genetic testing, preventative mastectomies, and other procedures that will potentially save their lives. But, the sad reality is that the majority of the population in the United States does not have access to the same choices as the wealthy and influential. Why? Because those choices are not covered by your average health insurance policy. If a nondescript American woman in Ms. Jolie's position (a woman in her late 30s, married with children, and a history of breast and ovarian cancers in her family) wanted to make those same choices, you can bet that those choices would involve much greater financial hardship and sacrifice. It's all well and good to talk about it, but who is stepping up to the plate to do something about it? Yes, women in places like Haiti, Guatemala, Tanzania, and other parts of the world need help, but the sad reality is, so do women here in the world's richest nation.
It is very easy for me to sit here banging out blog entries to bring attention to this dilemma. But, the sad reality is, my influence does not stretch beyond a very small corner of the Internet. Someone like Angelina Jolie has a global voice; when she speaks, people pay attention. The same goes for other women who use their celebrity in ways that help people all over the world. Here in America, that help is forsaken, because it is assumed that we don't need it.
Here is what I would like to see happen: I would like Ms. Jolie, when she is fully recuperated from her surgeries, embark on a campaign to stop the healthcare insanity in this country. Someone needs to snap Congress out of its bipartisan bullshit behavior, as well as stop the insurance behemoths from denying coverage to women for the important procedures they need access to in order to protect their health. That is a monumental, almost insurmountable task, but it at least needs to be attempted. This country needs to learn to take care of its own, instead of indulging in rampant paranoia about having its rights compromised by the likes of "Obamacare." We need to stop paying astronomical insurance premiums for shitty coverage, and find some way to provide healthcare for each and every person in this country. Obamacare is imperfect; that is a given. So are the government healthcare plans in many other countries. But, the difference is, EVERYONE HAS ACCESS TO THEM. You don't have to live in fear of losing your insurance along with your job. And, from personal experience, I can tell you that is a great feeling. Unfortunately, that is something we know nothing of here in the U.S.
Since I returned to the U.S. from Canada, I have no health insurance. I have no access to the care I need, as a 46 year-old woman, to protect myself the way Angelina Jolie has done. As a freelance writer, I cannot afford to get a mammogram, let alone pay a visit to a general practitioner. Yes, as a Canadian citizen, I can still cross the border back into Canada to access healthcare, but why should I have to? Why should I have to leave the greatest country on earth to seek healthcare someplace else? Why should anyone? Why should it not be available to each and every person in this country? It's great that I am asking these questions, but really, who is listening to me?
There is much that needs fixing here in the U.S. and the healthcare system is one of the major broken cogs in American life. Hillary Clinton tried to fix it 20 years ago; Barack Obama is attempting to once again. Instead of working something out that will benefit everyone, politicians are crying Armageddon, while insurance companies are running scared, thinking that their multi-billion dollar policy scams might dwindle away to nothing. Pharmaceutical companies are terrified because they might not be able to charge $50 a pill for some of their best-selling drugs. Oh, the humanity. Yes, humanity is suffering because of all this.
I just re-read what I've written and noticed that I used the phrase "sad reality" a number of times. I thought about editing a few out, but I realized that from a health perspective, our reality is very sad. And that speaks volumes about what life in this country is really like. We might appear to be a shining city on a hill, but when you peel back the facade, most of us are really suffering. Some of us are even dying because we lack the wherewithal and the means to gain access to the lifesaving options people like Angelina Jolie have access to. We don't want to just hear about them; we want to use them as well.