When Jennifer Martin at age 28 discovered what felt like a “rubber ball” in her left breast, she didn’t think it would turn out to be stage IV cancer. She was too young. Martin also didn’t think she’d end up out of work, selling her condominium and trudging through a mass of health insurance forms and doctor’s bills.
When Jennifer Martin at age 28 discovered what felt like a “rubber ball” in her left breast, she didn’t think it would turn out to be stage IV cancer. She was too young.
Martin also didn’t think she’d end up out of work, selling her condominium and trudging through a mass of health insurance forms and doctor’s bills.
In 2006, Martin was working as an occupational therapist and making a good living. She was going through a separation from her husband, but was optimistic about her future.
“Before cancer, I believed what most young people believe, I was invincible and I would be happy and live my life once all my goals were achieved,” Martin said. “After cancer, I realized that I wasn’t invincible and everyone does die someday. It’s not a bad thing, just a realization that you need to live your life to the fullest every day.”
After finding the lump in her breast, Martin saw her gynecologist and was sent immediately for a mammogram — a diagnostic test that doesn’t start until age 40 for most women. She wasn’t home 20 minutes from the appointment when her phone rang. Martin’s doctor was concerned it might be cancer. A biopsy in Boston two days later confirmed her fear.
“I didn’t even know young people could get breast cancer,” Martin said. “It was shocking that this was happening to me. I didn’t feel sick. I never even had surgery, stitches or a broken bone.”
Because of where the lump was situated, Martin was not a candidate for a lumpectomy. She would need to have her breast removed.
Being young, Martin thought about death, the prospect of having a love life again, and every other thing that can go through a person’s mind when faced with mortal uncertainty.
She went out on a short term leave from work, which has since turned into long-term disability.
Chemotherapy and radiation followed surgery — six rounds of chemotherapy once every three weeks, and radiation Monday to Friday for two months. She lost her hair and felt utterly sick.
“That’s the worst,” Martin said. “Surgery is painful, but it heals.”
Martin, after further testing, learned she was genetically inclined to develop breast cancer and was given the option of having her other breast removed.
“I elected to have my right mastectomy,” she said.
Though she’d taken the precaution, the cancer had spread to Martin’s liver, lungs and bones.
“I thought ‘oh my God, I have lung cancer. I have bone cancer. I really am going to die,’” Martin said.
She had been having some symptoms due to the cancer spreading — trouble breathing at times, lower back pain and general bone aches.
It was decided that Martin would need to have a hysterectomy.
“My cancer gets fed by estrogen,” she said.
In June 2009, Martin had the hysterectomy and got sent into early menopause. She does not have children.
“She’s a very strong person,” said Martin’s mother Maureen. “I was so angry at God.”
Maureen Martin, who’d never had a mammogram herself, finally went when her daughter insisted. It was a good thing she did. She had stage II breast cancer and needed a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. While usually the mother gets breast cancer before the daughter when genetics are involved, this wasn’t the case. Jennifer Martin’s cancer was extremely aggressive and using her estrogen to grow.
Jennifer Martin said she’d never have chemotherapy again after the first time, but had no choice.
“I felt emotionally, mentally, and spiritually sick,” she said. “It’s very challenging to stay positive. Mentally, I was still 30. Physically, I felt 80.”
Friends and family wheeled her around the mall in her wheelchair, and took her to Cape Cod — oxygen tank and all.
Through all of her suffering, Jennifer Martin, like many people who become unexpectedly sick, worried about paying for her care.
Fortunately for her, she lives in a state with near-universal health insurance. Unfortunately for her, an insurance botch-up has twice left her temporarily without coverage.
When Martin first got sick, she had Blue Cross through her job. Then, she signed on to COBRA, a temporary health insurance plan offered by employers, when she could no longer work.
As time went on, Martin applied for the state’s health insurance. But, a letter informing her when her old insurance would end did not reach her in time. She went without health insurance in November last year, racking up $3,000 in medical bills she is responsible for. She is on a payment plan.
“I went to all my medical appointments,” Martin said. “I was still sick.”
What she missed was her weekly blood work tests used to determine the amount of the oral chemo drug she still takes. Missing those appointments affected her liver function, and she had to stop taking the drug until her levels normalized.
With her finances becoming severely affected, the condominium she bought four years ago in the city’s North End had to be sold.
“I got bills above what I was making,” Martin said. “I kept seeing my account go down.”
On Dec.1, 2009 Martin was accepted to one of the state’s Commonwealth Care insurance plans. She was covered through February when a new problem arose with her income level.
Once again, Martin is without health insurance for the entire month, and has had to decide which appointments to keep and which to cancel. She rescheduled her third reconstruction surgery to May, canceled a pulmonary follow-up, and has had blood work just once this month, which she will pay for. Her oncologist will see her at no charge.
“I shouldn’t have to make the choice,” Martin said. “Do I take the risk?”
After meandering the complicated web of insurance forms, phone calls and set-backs, she will be insured as of April 1 — at three times the price of what she was paying.
“I’m not saying I’m poor and I want free medical care,” Martin said. “I’m not looking for a free ride. I just want health insurance.”
Currently, Martin is living with her boyfriend in Norton and studying at Northeastern to become a sign language interpreter. She does not know her prognosis, but is hoping to go back to work sometime in the future.
“I’m never going to be cancer free,” Martin said. “It’s like having a chronic condition.”
Cancer has also been a learning experience for Martin.
“The most important thing I realized is that it is important to tell your family and friends how you feel about them,” Martin said. “I always end a phone call or e-mail with ‘I love you.’ I want to make sure they know that.”
Today, at age 32, she also knows that young women do get breast cancer, and is involved in the Young Survival Coalition. She recently attended the coalition’s annual conference. To learn more, visit www.youngsurvival.org.
E-mail Herald News writer Deborah Allard at email@example.com.