What we share as survivors of ‘pre-existing conditions’

Job creators, loopholes and middle class, they’re all buzzwords of campaign season 2012.

Another phrase has bombarded Americans since health coverage became an issue as hot as war and taxes. That term is “pre-existing condition.”

It’s both insurance company jargon and a political football. Healthcare.gov, the website managed by the federal Department of Health and Human Services, explains a pre-existing condition as a physical or mental condition a person has before enrolling in a health plan.

A pre-existing condition — asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes or cancer — could mean health insurance will cost you more, or that coverage may be denied.

Sorry, though, if you expect to learn more about candidates’ health care views here. This column isn’t about policy. It’s personal.

It’s about love, courage and inspiration. It’s about one of my kids and some of my friends.

Hearing that label in election banter, I can’t help but think of someone with a pre-existing condition. My daughter, my oldest child, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer when she was 19.

The oddest thing reminded me that it’s been a decade since she first battled the disease. Ten years ago this week, after being diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer, she was home from college to undergo a five-hour surgery.

My memory was triggered recently when I read a Washington Post article about Lee Boyd Malvo, one of two snipers who in the fall of 2002 terrorized Washington, D.C. What I recall of that murderous rampage was watching TV coverage in my daughter’s hospital room at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett.

Ten years, wow. The other day, I asked if she remembered that it has been 10 years since her surgery — as if she wouldn’t. She was kind, and didn’t reply with “Duh, Mom.”

As milestone years pass, of course she remembers. Anyone who survives cancer, a heart attack or other life-threatening illness remembers. Like millions, my daughter lives every day with what insurance wonks call a pre-existing condition.

I watch as that young woman not only lives each day, but does so gloriously. She is a wife and mother now. Her sweet baby son is walking. In her career, she does important work as a public defense lawyer.

Her husband was out of town a couple weeks back. For a few days, she was on her own, juggling her job, commute, day-care drop-off, and everything else busy parents do. I remember those exhausting days. Thinking of my daughter in that role, I can only smile.

Ten years ago, she bravely walked through the darkest days of cancer surgery and treatments. Since then, she has created a happy, purposeful life.

On Sept. 30, I did some walking myself. I joined a team of Herald employees, along with two of their delightful daughters, at the local Making Strides Against Breast Cancer event, an American Cancer Society fundraiser.

With hundreds of others, most sporting the color pink synonymous with the breast cancer fight, we walked from the Snohomish County Courthouse Plaza to the Colby campus of Providence hospital and back. On that bright morning, I walked alongside one co-worker wearing a survivor’s sash. She didn’t wear the label “pre-existing condition,” but she also fits that description.

There were many, many survivor sashes at the Making Strides walk. Those women walked with their kids, husbands and friends.

In miles of footsteps, I heard lots of talk — about jobs, school, a homecoming dance and the zany outfits worn by some walkers. I didn’t hear one word about cancer.

Ten years ago, my daughter got on a plane to return to Santa Clara University less than two weeks after surgery. I was worried, and at times urged her to take time off from school.

I remember her answer: “I don’t want to be ‘cancer girl.’ ” And she never has been. A disease is not someone’s identity. “Pre-existing condition” doesn’t define anyone.

When you hear that term, remember why it matters.

We’re talking about real people, our parents and kids, airline pilots and first-graders, real people.

They are not some sliver of some huge health insurance company’s client demographic. In the end, that label — pre-existing condition — is sure to fit every one of us.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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