Cancer, a burned-out home, and the blessings of friends

Kay Hartzell and her husband, Mike.

Kay Hartzell, 52, of Farmington has Stage IV metastasized ovarian cancer. Local doctors have told her there’s nothing more they can do for her. Insurance won’t pay for the treatment she’s undergoing so she’s sold land up north she wanted to leave to her children. Oh, and her house burned down.

“I’m so blessed,” she told me recently, without a hint of irony.

Hartzell’s story, no doubt shared by thousands of others, is a reminder that when it comes to cancer, insurance companies still call the shots.

Her cancer was first discovered in 2009 and, knowing nothing about cancer, she followed the advice of doctors at the Mayo Clinic. They told her to have chemo; she had chemo that almost killed her. They told her to have surgery; she had surgery. “They took two thirds of my rectum. I was, like, ‘well, thank you,'” she said.

“I was in denial,” she said. “I was doing what they told me to do and I figured I’ll never have to worry about it again.”

But the cancer came back, not long after her daughter’s wedding in 2012.

Her oncologist said there was nothing more he could do for her other than give her more chemotherapy and make her comfortable.

“I’m crying all the way home and then I said, ‘Wait a minute!’ I heard them say there’s nothing they can do for for me, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing I can do for me. They had me dying six months ago.”

With bad reactions to surgery and chemotherapy, she preferred more natural, less invasive approaches to fighting her cancer. She went to a facility in Mexico but it didn’t have the resources. She went to Cancer Treatment Centers of America “because they said they did things, but I got there and, no, they don’t,” she said. “They were nice, but they didn’t offer what I was looking for.”

She was looking for natural, less invasive treatment, just the kind of thing insurance companies don’t cover.

“I called a couple of places, but they were so expensive; they’re half the price of going to the Mayo Clinic. But the insurance will cover the Mayo, but they won’t cover any of this,” she said.

This” is the Reno Integrative Medical Center, which Hartzell describes initially as a “three-week boot camp” for cancer patients that costs $20,000. She still will get chemotherapy, but at a much reduced rate that didn’t leave her ill, and it was combined with glucose “so it goes straight to the cancer,” she says. After the initial boot camp, patients return once a month for three days. “You’re hooked up to an IV for four to six hours a day,” Hartzell said. Each visit costs about $7,000

“There’s a couple we know from Cannon Falls. Mayo told him the same thing. He has Stage IV bladder cancer. He went to Reno. Then he went back to Mayo and they said, ‘it’s not going to work.’ It did work,” she said. “And they still wanted to do surgery.”

Maybe her preferred treatment will work. Maybe it won’t. But definitely she’s on her own paying for it.

Fighting cancer is a challenge all its own. Nobody needs a house fire.

“I’d taken a sleeping pill,” she recalls about the night last July,”and I was thinking, ‘why is this not working?’ Then I hear popping sounds and thought my next-door neighbor was out shooting off more fireworks.”

But it wasn’t her neighbor. It was her house burning.

She and her husband, her son and his baby made it out alive. But now they had no home.

Over the next few weeks, however, dozens of volunteers combed through everything in the house, saving what they could before reconstruction.

“I’m feeling amazingly blessed,” she says. “We’ve had so many miracles come out of this, I can’t tell you. Just the help cleaning our house. We got the whole thing down to the studs.”

The family has spent the last six months in either a hotel or a townhome, but they hope to move back to a rebuilt home next month.

Kay Hartzell acknowledges she’s not feeling as well lately. “But I don’t want to spend my days being miserable and be awful to be around,” she said. “Yes, I’d like to stick around longer, but there’s no sense in being a pain in the butt about it. Don’t get me wrong; I have my days.”

She also has her friends, who are planning on a fundraiser next month in Lakeville to raise money for her fight.

For now, she’s been funding it with money from selling land her father and mother left her. “It was the one thing I thought I would hand down to my kids,” she said, “But they’re, like, ‘no, we’d rather have you.'”

“She was struggling with that a lot,” her daughter, Carrie Rademacher, says of the money issue. “Her whole search for finding a way to beat cancer, it’s not just for herself. She wants to find an affordable way for everyone.”

“If it can pay for three or four treatments, it would be awesome,” Kay Hartzell says, when asked about the benefit’s goal.

“The only thing that keeps us afloat is faith,” she says. “And my husband has uber amounts of it. He just trusts that God is going to take care of everything. I know he comes close to breaking sometime.”

  • This is heartbreaking. I played in the drumline with her daughter in high school. She was (and likely still is) a much better drummer than me.

  • Kassie

    Maybe the health insurance doesn’t pay for the Reno Integrative Medical Center because it doesn’t do anything that Mayo doesn’t do. The chemo she got there she can get here, and the rest is a bunch of unscientifically proven junk. I don’t want my insurance covering procedures that have not been scientifically proven to work. That just raises my costs and gives patients false hope.

    • BJ

      But at Reno it was half the cost of Mayo, if I read that correctly. Wouldn’t that lower your cost of insurance.

      • The “false hope” assertion is an interestintg one. Can’t any hope in the absence of certainty be “false hope.” I have several people who had pancreatic cancer. They all fought it, hoping they would win. The survival rate for Stage IV pancreatic cancer is 1%. And yet they fought on with, really, nothing but hope (and faith) to sustain them.

        At the end of the day, people have to live and die on their own terms. And they don’t owe me any explanations.

    • KTN

      Does this same rational apply to medical marijuana, which also does not have a depth of scientific research behind it. Anecdotal evidence cannot be completely discounted, otherwise we would not have the discussion around medical marijuana. False hope, sure, but what about just hope. Quackery exists, but the same can be said about some (much) of modern medicine, but belief transcends all of that. Nobody wants to pay for false hopes, but…

      • Kassie

        I would say it does. Medical Marijuana should not be paid for by insurance until there are real studies showing proof of effectiveness. I believe (could be wrong) that in the case of Glaucoma, it has been proven effective, so that would be a case when it should be allowed with prescription.

        That said, both with medical marijuana and other alternative medicines, ones that appear effective should have studies done to prove that effectiveness. I don’t think we should limit medical testing to just the latest and greatest designer drugs.

  • Disclaimer: I work for a health insurance company. These views/comments are strictly my own and not those of my employer.

    “She still got chemotherapy, but at a much reduced rate that didn’t leave her ill, and it was combined with glucose ‘so it goes straight to the cancer,’ she says.”

    Is this referring to Insulin Potentiation Therapy? According to the American Cancer Society, “…no scientific studies that show safety and effectiveness have been published in available peer-reviewed journals” for that treatment:
    http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/complementaryandalternativemedicine/pharmacologicalandbiologicaltreatment/insulin-potentiation-therapy

    This is a bad example of health journalism. Where’s the research on these alternative methods? The tone of the post suggests that insurance companies should cover these treatments, when there are strong arguments against that (not presented above).

    Please read “Do Doctors Ever Treat Cancer With Natural Regimens?”
    http://www.slate.com/blogs/quora/2014/02/09/cancer_treatments_a_doctor_s_take_on_alternative_and_natural_regimens.html

    Wishing Kay and her family the best. What an awful situation to be in.

    • Your characterization of the tone of the post might be overly influenced by what you do. The tone of the post is a woman carrying on and moving ahead in the face of adversity. The tone of the post honors her fight.

      I’m not interested in judging her health care decisions; that’s for her to decide. But the insurance company isn’t paying for it and she recognizes that. She’s not asking for your blessing for her decision. She’s not asking you to change anything. It is what it is and that’s a call the insurance company can make. She responded to it in the way she sees fit, and is moving on accordingly.

      As I said in the piece, “maybe it’ll work. Maybe it won’t. But she’s on her own paying for it.” That’s a reality. That’s her reality and that’s what I write about for a living.

      If you would approach her situation differently, that’s entirely up to you. This is the health choice she has made.

      I’m sorry if that’s bad “health journalism” but I do “people journalism” about how people face their realities, and I’m more interested in that and conveying that than a debate over the proper way people are supposed to live once a doctor has told you you’ll die..

      • My critique was not at all about judging her health care decisions. It’s not about how I would approach her situation (I honestly have no idea what I would do in that situation). Those are her decisions to make. My critique (formed from journalism school and journalists/editors who have mentored me over the years) was about the incompleteness of your story. That’s an important distinction.

        As a reader of your story, I wonder why the insurance company won’t cover her alternative treatments…they sound better:

        “She still will get chemotherapy, but at a much reduced rate that didn’t leave her ill, and it was combined with glucose “so it goes straight to the cancer,” she says.

        “There’s a couple we know from Cannon Falls. Mayo told him the same thing. He has Stage IV bladder cancer. He went to Reno. Then he went back to Mayo and they said, ‘it’s not going to work.’ It did work,” she said. “And they still wanted to do surgery.”

        Qualifying all of this with “Maybe her preferred treatment will work. Maybe it won’t.” isn’t sufficient. It makes it sound like a coin flip. Is it? What if it’s unlikely to work? What if it could do harm? That’s important information to provide the reader.

        There are reasons to be skeptical of those who provide alternative treatments to patients who may be at the most vulnerable point of their lives, including fraud and safety.

        Journalism is journalism. The same standards that apply to traditional health care stories should apply to human interest stories. I think an editor would raise some of these same questions.

        • A coin flip? What part of she either lives or she dies confuses you? If it works, she lives. If it doesn’t she dies. If she follows the advice of traditional media, she dies. Her choice is to accept that she’s going to die or try something that may or may not work.

          The blog post was focused on a woman who’s been told she’s going to die, making choices for her. That’s it. Her choices, her struggle, her thoughts. Period. It’s not an analysis of her choices and decisions.

          It’s true, of course, that if i were writing news stories for MPR, I’d write a long and perhaps different story. But I don’t write news stories for MPR; I write blog posts about people in their own words about the decisions they make and what they face.

          Yes, I realize that sort of thing drives traditional journalists mad and certainly doesn’t meet your journalistic standards, perhaps the fine journalism schools you attended, the journalists who mentored you and now, presumably, the journalistic standards you employ at your health insurance company. I get that. You have an impressive educational resume, for sure. I look forward to following your work someday.

          By the way, the story did go through an editor and as a former MPR employee, you probably still have Paul’s email and perhaps you can question him directly. I can’t speak for him.

    • doesnt matter

      Who cares about bad health journalism, if her insurance would help her(like they should) She wouldnt have to seek alternative medicine, the health care industry should be ashamed of playing dictator over who lives and who dies.

      • I didn’t see anything in the post that said her insurance didn’t cover her traditional treatments.

        • She’s seeking alternative medicine because that’s what she wants to do after traditional medicine has said there’s nothing they can do. I think that’s pretty clear in the story.

  • Nanci

    When my parents learned my dad had cancer, they made choices…he did not want treatment, he wanted to live until he died, and be comfortable and partake in his life. That’s exactly what he did. The last couple months were probably more rough than expected, and hospice came far too late, but really, they thought he was coming home. Death came in a matter of a minutes when it was allowed to. When the pine box was lowered, I didn’t feel like it was my dad in there. He was laughing somewhere at everyone who drove in a snowstorm to watch it happen. Then we went out for pancakes. He would have enjoyed that.