Representative Jamie Raskin: Surviving Colorectal Cancer and Working to Improve the Health of the Nation
I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2010. It was an excruciatingly difficult experience for me and my family. But we were fortunate, I was treated by some fantastic doctors and nurses who saved my life. The experience was also a hard-won political epiphany and I am passionate about supporting legislation that increases access to health care and promotes investment in biomedical research and health innovation.
At the start of 2010, life was going smoothly. I had a great family life and two jobs that I loved, I was a professor in constitutional law and a state senator. As Susan Sontag put it in Illness as Metaphor, when she said that everyone is born with two passports – one for the kingdom of the well and one for the kingdom of the sick – I was using my passport for the land of the living and the healthy.
By the middle of the year, I was using my passport for the sick and the dying.
It all started when I went to the doctor because I was experiencing reflux symptoms. He recommended that I have an endoscopy and then said, “While you are there why don’t you have a colonoscopy too.” So, I did.
I knew there was something wrong as soon as I woke up from the procedures because there were nurses and doctors all around my bed. They told me they had seen nothing unusual during the endoscopy but that the colonoscopy had revealed a problem. There was mass the size of a walnut in my colon. They didn’t know immediately that it was cancer but several days later test results confirmed that it was.
At that point, it was off to the races. I began six weeks of daily radiotherapy and chemotherapy, which was highly effective at shrinking the tumor. Then I had a long but successful surgery to remove the tumor.
My final treatment was another eight cycles of chemotherapy, which the doctors recommended because the cancer had spread to some nearby lymph nodes.
The entire course of my treatment was grueling, especially the surgery, but my family helped me through it. I did take a semester off from teaching but I continued my work in the State Senate. In fact, my floor leadership on marriage equality and repeal of the death penalty gave me something positive to focus on rather than my health.
Since the end of my treatment I’ve been monitored closely but there has been no sign of recurrence of cancer and I consider myself to be cured but still vigilant. I’ve also become more determined than ever to increase access to health care. It was hard enough for someone like me, who has great health insurance, to deal with my diagnosis, I cannot imagine how devastating it must be for those who have no health insurance.
One piece of legislation that I am cosponsoring with Congressman Charlie Dent (R-Pa) and Congressman Donald Payne, Jr. (D-NJ), the “Removing Barriers to Colorectal Cancer Screening Act of 2017,” aims to eliminate costs for all Medicare beneficiaries receiving a screening colonoscopy, even those who have a polyp removed during the procedure. Currently, if a polyp is discovered and removed during a screening colonoscopy, Medicare beneficiaries are required to pay the coinsurance. Eliminating the possibility that unexpected costs will arise during screening should increase the number of people who get screened, which is vital for early detection and improved survival.
My experience has also strengthened my resolve to make sure that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) gets the investments it needs to keep funding the researchers who are making breakthroughs against diseases like cancer.
These diseases affect all of us in some way. So, I’m going to stand up strong and defend deep federal investment in the NIH. It is, after all, an investment in the lives of people all over the country.