An open letter: Dear me at 23

1933772_505565146516_1849_nBy Julie

Happy Birthday from me (you) in 10 years! I know you’re in the midst of a four country, five airport journey back from Albania and you’ve got some serious plans ahead of you and things to do, but just stick with me for a couple minutes.

You don’t know this yet, but your life is about to change in a huge way. Don’t freak out, but this is the last birthday you are going to spend as a single person. In just a few short months you are going to meet the most amazing man. His name is Travis and you will quickly realize that he is going to be one of your best friends and that you’ll want him to be in your life forever.

I know what you’re thinking – “I’m not ready to settle down!” Don’t worry, there is not a person in the world that would describe the life that you two have together as “settled.” You are both very career-driven, so you move around a lot and support each other’s professional goals. As a result you are very successful, although you’d be quite surprised by what your current job entails (I won’t spoil it for you).

You have an amazing dog and three cats (Yes, three cats. He’s a cat person and you really really love him so you have three cats). No kids at the moment, not surprisingly that’s been a challenge for you physically. What is surprising is how much this has affected you emotionally. Don’t dismiss these feelings, it’s okay for you to be sad about them.

Your life is truly wonderful, and it’s only getting started. Although the thought of turning 33 may seem nauseating to you right now, I promise as it gets closer it won’t feel that old. The next 10 years will fly by — please take some time to savor the little moments. You have a tendency to over plan and over prepare. Don’t lose these traits because they really help you get ahead in life, but if you could try and lighten up a bit I think you’ll enjoy life a bit more (Travis will help you with this).

The future has it’s ups and downs. I don’t want to spoil too many things for you but I do want to give you a heads up that the Cubs are going to win the World Series in 2017 (maybe place a few strategic bets and wow our friends?). Also, one of our teams is going to break the Cleveland curse (spoiler alert, it’s not the Browns), but it will come after Lebron totally breaks all of our hearts so brace yourself. It probably doesn’t surprise you that sports spoilers are first on my agenda? I suppose I could go into more things that could positively impact our planet but I’ll just trust that you’ll make the right decisions – and don’t worry you (we) are still a good person.

There’s one thing that I just can’t bring myself to tell you. It’s big. It’s really, really big. It’s the most difficult thing you have ever had to tackle and I should probably warn you but I don’t want to take the risk that the next 10 years will be in anyway altered by your foreknowledge of this particular event. I’ll simply tell you that 2016 will hit you like a ton of bricks (and not just because America makes some pretty, we’ll say “interesting,” political choices that make 2017 a truly wild ride). There are going to be days when you won’t want to get out of bed. You’ll doubt everything you’ve ever known to be true and there will be days that you will wonder if you have the strength to keep on going. I know you hate surprises, so if I have managed to somehow reach you with this letter you’re going to hate me (you) for doing this to you (me), but I promise it’s in your best interest to not try and over prepare for this one. Trust me, you can’t. It’s just not possible.

So, happy birthday me at 23. You have an amazing ride ahead of you. Please, take it all in and enjoy all that these years have to offer. When 2016 arrives just take a deep breath, throw your hands up and let the world take you where it may.

All the Best,

Me at 33

P.S. Travis is going to start lecturing you on proper footwear like 10 minutes after you meet him. Please heed his advice, he knows what he’s talking about. You don’t have any grey hairs yet but if you don’t stop hiking in the crappy flats you bought at Target, your feet are going to be shot and you won’t be able to tolerate anything more than kitten heels.

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Logan

image1By Julie

In the months since Travis’ diagnosis, I’ve learned a lot about the human brain and the amazing ways it responds to and copes with trauma. If you’ve been following this blog, you know that after Travis’ surgeries he felt a strong connection to the Wolverine and, for a time, really believed he was the Wolverine. This is a connection that helped him to overcome the trauma he was experiencing, and for that I am exceedingly grateful.

The first trailer for Logan, the third and final movie in the Wolverine trilogy, was released while Travis was in the hospital. With little else to keep him occupied in his ICU bed, Travis watched that preview repeatedly. As he became more lucid, and as his connection with the Wolverine became more about inspiration and less about trauma delusion, his anticipation and desire to see the movie grew. But, as the reality of his cancer diagnosis set in he looked at the opening date of the movie and with bit of a catch in his throat remarked, “I sure hope I make it long enough to see Logan.”

The movie opened at the beginning of this month and we were there for opening night  (we’ve also seen it several times since). And, because this film and the Wolverine character have become so incredibly meaningful for us both, I decided to sit down and ask Travis some questions about his take on the movie, what he remembers of his time in the hospital, and how he’s feeling now. Here is his review:

Julie: Have you always been a fan of the Wolverine and X-Men movies?

Travis: It’s strange, but I was always really more of a Batman fan – those were the comic books I read, the movies I anticipated, and the posters I had as a kid (and maybe a little as an adult, too). But, I like superhero and action movies in general so I had seen all of the X-Men movies as they came out.

Julie: Do you remember what it was like in the hospital when you started to talk about the Wolverine?

Travis: Not really, and I’m kind of sad that I don’t get to remember it the way you do. It sounds like it was pretty entertaining. I do remember other things that I’m pretty sure now weren’t real – there was a doctor that I was certain was trying to kill me; I thought I was only allowed to watch animal planet and was very upset about that; and I was certain that someone kept changing the clocks so I wouldn’t know what time it was (I know now that did happen — but it was because it was the end of daylight savings time).

Julie: For months you were anticipating seeing Logan. You watched every trailer and counted down to its opening. Could it ever live up to your expectations?

Travis: You have to realize that I thought that if I could make it to March 3rd, this would be the last movie that I was going to ever get to see.

Julie: That’s a lot of pressure to put on a movie, so did it live up to your expectations?

Travis: I have to see it again so I can say for sure – do we have plans tonight? But yes, in all seriousness, I can confidently say it’s the best of all of the X-Men themed movies that have been made. I really hadn’t realized that Hugh Jackman had been playing the Wolverine for almost 20 years and that’s pretty amazing when you think about it. That’s longer than any of the seven guys who have played James Bond lasted. If this is truly the end of Jackman’s time as the Wolverine, I can’t think of a better way for him to say goodbye to the character. It’s a very satisfying ending for a fan.

Julie: Since your connection to the Wolverine was a new thing, was there something special about this particular character that you connected with at this point in your life?

Travis: I think we all understand that we’re not immortal but when we’re young we see aging and death as far off things. A cancer diagnosis changes that. People start to talk about you in terms of how much time certain treatments can give you. Radiation and chemotherapy treatments take so much out of you that there’s no way you can feel invincible anymore. In the previous movies Logan was invincible but this movie showed that even a superhero can’t take for granted that their powers will always be there.

Julie: I’ve seen a lot of superhero movies since I married a superhero buff, and I’ve seen a lot of westerns because, well, you like those too. This almost felt more like a western than a superhero movie, did you have the same impression?

Travis: There were certainly a lot of western references in the movie and parallels between Logan and the movie Shane. It wasn’t subtle if you look at how it was all staged and assembled – the use of Johnny Cash music was pretty on the nose, there were old western clips used in the movie, and Charles (Professer X) and Logan both have the feel of being old gun fighters. But there are some subtle things in there as well that I think the director intentionally dropped in there to appeal to western movie buffs.

Julie: So here’s the big box office question – Should people go see this movie?

Travis: Is that even a question? Why would you even ask that? Go, see it now! Take me with you!

 

Cancer and the Affordable Care Act (ACA)

By Julie

Unlike much of the nation, I have not been overly politically engaged in the past few months – but that doesn’t mean that I’m not listening. When I do engage in political discourse, I typically gravitate towards supporting and discussing issues related to education, the environment, and arts and cultural programming – but for reasons I don’t think I have to explain at length, healthcare is a big topic for us right now.

You won’t see our names in the headlines, but over the past five months my family has become a statistic in the healthcare debate. We are now counted among those who use more than they contribute to the healthcare system. We hold our breath as we open bills because it’s nearly impossible to predict what the numbers will say, and we shuffle around our financial priorities to make ends meet each month. I won’t pretend to be an expert on healthcare spending, but I know a lot more now than than I did about this system and I think I have something to contribute to the conversation.

I consider myself to be a political moderate, but when it comes to healthcare my political bias has always tended to swing left. While I value the concept of small government and appreciate the free market economy, I consider healthcare to be a fundamental right that we all should have equal access to. I supported the big picture goals of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), even as I watched my own insurance premiums increase, and I was more than happy to pay a little more for my pizza if it meant that the franchise I was buying from could afford to provide health care to their employees.

I don’t know enough about the economics of the ACA to argue in favor of it remaining as it currently exists, and since the plan for healthcare reform from the new administration is still taking shape I will reserve judgement on what is to come for the moment. Once the new plan is finalized I will rely on a variety of trusted news sources to help me understand its implications and factor that into my future voting decisions, but I will leave the economic analyses to the experts.

What I can contribute to this conversation is an understanding of the economics of balancing an expensive medical diagnosis while trying to maintain some semblance of a normal life. Travis and I were in a better position than most to financially handle what we have been dealt: we don’t have children; we both have good jobs; we are both insured (whew!); and, at the time, we had decent savings. We are also fortunate to have an amazing network of family and friends who have provided support (monetary and otherwise). Still, in hindsight I wish we had been better prepared.

Here is a list of things I wish I would have known and the amount of additional money I would have tried to have in savings to cover one year of unexpected expenses.

  • Medical Bills – $15,000 – The ACA sets an annual “out of pocket maximum” that insurance companies can require of their policyholders. For 2017 this is around $7,000 but the IRS has the authority to adjust this number annually. In our case Travis was diagnosed with cancer in the middle of October so we cleared our maximum in 3 months only to have it reset again in January. All bets are off if this provision disappears from the national picture so make sure you’re familiar with the maximum set by your own plan, and then double that number in case your diagnosis comes just before the end of the year.
  • Travel & Vehicle Expenses – $10,000 – If you happen to live next door to a major medical facility that treats the exact illness you or a loved one are dealing with, you can probably reduce this number. In our case Travis’ treatment requires us to travel approximately 160 miles round trip for each appointment. In general we average one trip per week to the cancer center, but there was a six-week period when we made this trip almost every day. We’re fortunate that gas prices have been relatively low, family members have pitched in to assist with the driving, and we are lucky that the travel distance isn’t even greater than what it is. We expected gas and toll expenses but didn’t think about  wear and tear on the car. We’re due for new breaks and tires about 6 months earlier than I had planned, I’ve already had my oil changed twice this year (and it’s only March) and my Forester, purchased new in 2014 is approaching 120,000 miles so we’re already considering a new car long before we’d planned to.
  • Lodging and Dining Expenses – $5,000 – We have been very lucky to have access to the services of an American Cancer Society run Hope Lodge facility, but there have been occasions where rooms were not available and we have had to stay in a hotel. Depending on the resources available to you, this could go up or down. Traveling and food sensitivities due to medications (chemo) can mean a lot of meals on the road.
  • Miscellaneous – $5,000 – Unfortunately, a major medical problem does not make you immune to other life challenges. In the months since Travis’ diagnosis we have had to replace a hot water heater and repair a septic system at our house. If you’re a homeowner and you’ve just blown your savings on medical bills, you’re going to want to have an additional reserve for house repairs because, well, when it rains it pours. Also, keep in mind that if you are your own handy (wo)man (or you’re lucky enough to be married to one), you may now have to pay to have other people take care of these problems.In addition to household emergencies there have been an uptick in miscellaneous expenses related to our general household needs – for example, money spent on winter heating expenses because we’re home more often during the day and illness often makes you feel colder than you normally do.
  • Mental Health & Other Health Expenses – $5,000 per family member – I’ll be brief here illnesses come up, regular health needs continue, and counseling can be expensive (but it’s an important piece of your recovery).
  • Lost Wages – $25,000 – We are both incredibly lucky to have employers who have been understanding and supportive – my employer has allowed me to telecommute and Travis’ employer allows him to receive donated leave from his colleagues (and we have been amazed by the outpouring of support he has received from them). Even with that I have had to take some unpaid time off, and expect to do so again in the future. Hopefully Travis will not have to go on disability at any point in this journey, but we just can’t be certain. So, ask yourself, how long could you maintain your lifestyle without your or your partner’s monthly income?

This list includes an estimated $75,000 in lost wages and additional expenses, medical and otherwise, that I wish we would have been better prepared to handle – and this just an estimate based on our experience thus far.

At 32 years old I have never paid a late fee on any bill, I have a 401K and a car that will be fully paid off in approximately 2 months. My husband and I own a house that we have successfully converted into an income-generating rental property. We are coupon-cutting-detail-oriented-budgeters with two solid incomes and no children. We were doing pretty well at this whole adult thing, and yet there was no way we could have been financially prepared for the storm that was coming. Being members of a society with a functioning healthcare system is the primary reason that my husband is still alive, and the reason that we have the possibility of a life again when he finally beats cancer.

The Republican Party emphasizes personal responsibility when cutting social programs while Democrats espouse the values of communal support in propping up those most in need in society — the reality is that both principles are right and yet neither is enough when it comes to an individual healthcare crisis. Even relatively privileged hyper-prepared individuals cannot plan enough for the financial challenges brought on by a devastating medical diagnosis, and even the most carefully curated national health care program will not suffice for an individual who fails to prepare themselves for crisis.

As the healthcare debate continues, I implore you to engage, discuss, listen and learn. Don’t assume that one side has all of the solutions. Look for reputable resources rather than relying on memes, sound bites, and the rhetoric of politicians who may be motivated by advancing their careers. Health care should never be a partisan issue.