Beating Cancer Is One Thing; Beating Medical Debt Is Another

It was a dreary Wednesday afternoon, about a year-and-a-half ago. I was rehearsing in Seattle for an upcoming performance with my rock band, Theory of Change. I was working out some parts with the saxophonist, and things were sounding good.

Then, I got the call that would change my life.

Turns out the golfball-sized lump on my chest was Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I had cancer, and hearing the news from my doctor, I was outside of myself. The room started spinning and I went into shock. I had no idea what this all meant, but I knew it was serious and that I very well might not survive this.

For the following weeks, I grappled with my mortality. I asked myself, am I at peace with this? I knew I wasn’t. I had too much left to do with this little life of mine. And, most pressing, I had to stick around to be a dad to my boy Jack. I was not yet ready to meet my maker, there is more to be done. And with that resolve, I decided that, no matter how serious this would be, I was going to fight.

A couple surgeries and six months of grueling chemotherapy later, I am humbled to say that I am cancer-free.


Here is my story:

As anyone who’s gone through this knows, chemo ain’t no picnic. Toxic, poisonous chemicals — which come in quite the skull-and-bones package — are pumped into a metallic port implanted and connected directly to your heart because the poison is too toxic for your veins to handle via IV.

After each treatment, I would spend a full week just managing its effects. Then an off week trying to regain my strength. Then blasted again.

Alliance Senior Policy Associate Ben Henry went through six months of chemotherapy and beat cancer. But he couldn't beat the debt collectors.
Alliance Senior Policy Associate Ben Henry went through six months of chemotherapy and beat cancer. But he couldn’t beat the debt collectors.

Needless to say, it was a struggle to manage the other areas of my life, like my finances. I had good health insurance and a very supportive employer. I cannot imagine going through all this like so many out there who do not have access to those resources.

But even with that, I was left with co-insurance obligations that made up a large portion of my income. So, through my cloudy chemical haze, I had to deal with the stress of not having the financial means to pay for the treatment I needed to not die.

I am so profoundly grateful to the doctors, nurses, technicians and social workers who healed me. While they are everything that is good about health care in America, we live in a broken system, and I have witnessed this first-hand.

So it was about 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning when I was awakened by the sound of loud banging on my front door. I woke in a panicked stupor, wondering, Is someone hurt? What was this emergency? I ran to my door and opened it and, like a scene straight out of a movie, was served papers.

I was being sued for debt accrued through my treatments with Swedish-Providence.

How does one reconcile the very institution that cured me of cancer to turn around and sell my debt on pennies on the dollar to a collection agency, who then sues me for getting sick?

Doctors should be paid for their work. Nurses, technicians, social workers – everyone – should get living wages for their work. But CEOs and insurance companies should not be getting rich off my cancer.

Health care should NOT be a for-profit enterprise. It is a public good to be shared by all. It is a basic human right.

I cannot help but wonder what my experience would have been like if the work of Washington Community Action Network around this issue were successful. In Seattle, Washington CAN! has taken on Swedish-Providence, the largest hospital system in the region and one that has a high-powered legal team and lots of PR muscle. After months of doorknocking, story collection, yard signs, and direct actions – including directly handing the hospital’s own charity care application to patients – Washington CAN! leaders are going into negotiations with hospital executives this month with a model debt collection and charity care policy.

Despite some of the rhetoric you might be hearing from those trying to profit off the system (see the Daily Show clip below), America does not have the world’s best health care system. Our health care system is sick, and it desperately needs some healing.

Ben Henry is senior policy associate with the Alliance For a Just Society. Follow his blog on his story of survival here: