Struggle to survive: Single mom in battle with advanced breast cancer, unpaid bills

Lexey Swall/Staff
Susan Alderman gets an MRI on her upper spine during her fifth day at the NCH North Collier Hospital in February in Naples. Alderman went to the emergency room with a fever and was admitted to the hospital. She ran a fever for three days after receiving chemotherapy and tried to get antibiotics, but the pharmacy had her under the wrong insurance and it would not cover the medication. The antibiotics were $130, money Alderman didn't have.

Lexey Swall/Staff Susan Alderman gets an MRI on her upper spine during her fifth day at the NCH North Collier Hospital in February in Naples. Alderman went to the emergency room with a fever and was admitted to the hospital. She ran a fever for three days after receiving chemotherapy and tried to get antibiotics, but the pharmacy had her under the wrong insurance and it would not cover the medication. The antibiotics were $130, money Alderman didn't have.

Susan Alderman, 40, was diagnosed in November but couldn't start treatment for a month. Financial instability and a lack of insurance meant the South Fort Myers mom had to make choices — pay rent or receive treatment. There aren't countywide social programs in Lee County that help provide financial care to cancer patients.

— Susan Alderman's hair once flowed with bouncy, dirty-blond locks. Now, her bare scalp and the red rings around her eyes remind her of a weekend spent in excruciating pain.

Alderman checked into NCH North Naples Hospital with a high fever and dangerously low white blood cell counts on a Friday in February. Roman, her now 7-year-old son, climbed up on her in her hospital bed, making himself comfortable.

"If it wasn't for him, probably ..." and her voice trails off as she holds back tears. "He's the reason that I keep going. He's my life. Just that little smile and when he says, 'Hi mom,' it keeps me going."

Roman comes first. Her Stage IV breast cancer comes second.

Alderman, 40, was diagnosed in November but couldn't start treatment for a month. Financial instability and a lack of insurance meant the South Fort Myers mom had to make choices — pay rent or receive treatment. There aren't countywide social programs in Lee County that help provide financial care to cancer patients.

Before her February hospital visit, she was prescribed an antibiotic. It would have prevented the severity of her illness, but she had to make a choice. It was too expensive, unaffordable for the struggling single mother.

Doctors believed her chemotherapy treatments depleted her body so severely of leukocytes, or white blood cells, that she needed a blood transfusion.

The cancer continues to spread. She's out of the hospital now. But that February day, Alderman's hospital room was decorated with blue and pink construction paper.

"Sorry you're in the hospital," wrote Roman, an honor-roll student, on a card filled with hearts. "Hope you feel better."

He refused to leave Alderman's bedside; at first, when he was home he'd worry himself to tears about his mom. After a few months, Roman began to accept her condition.

"He's using the word 'cancer,' " Alderman said. "He's understanding a lot more."

* * * * *

When Alderman began treatment at Florida Cancer Specialists and Research Institute in Bonita Springs a month after her diagnosis, she was told she needed it regularly.

Trouble was, she couldn't afford it.

"There needs to be some kind of organization in Lee County to help people with cancer," said Susan Alderman, who lives about 5 miles north of Estero, the boundary that Collier organizations draw to provide help.

Alderman's mother, Margie Alderman, 57, said she helped call around for assistance, but was always told nothing could be done. Mom provides what support she can for her daughter, and supporting friends also help.

But organizations that can provide financial assistance are scarce.

"In Lee County, there isn't an organization like the ones in Collier County that would help her," said Miriam Ross, executive director of the Susan G. Komen Southwest Florida affiliate for breast cancer research.

The Komen Foundation doesn't help individuals directly. Instead, all money raised through donations or events goes toward research or providing grants to established charitable organizations.

Some groups, like The Cancer Alliance of Naples (CAN), Bosom Buddies Breast Cancer Support Inc., and Long-term Impact through the Gift of Hope and Treatment (LIGHT) of Southwest Florida, are either supported through grants from Komen or exist in Collier County through fundraising efforts. The Komen grant money is either put toward living or medical expenses directly — not given to the patient.

Some groups, like The Cancer Alliance of Naples (CAN), Bosom Buddies Breast Cancer Support Inc., and Long-term Impact through the Gift of Hope and Treatment (LIGHT) of Southwest Florida, are supported through grants from Komen. The money is either put toward living or medical expenses directly — not given to the patient.

"We get many people from Lee County, and we don't know where to turn," said Marianne Larimer, executive director of CAN. "It's a terrible thing to know these people might be evicted or have their utilities turned off while they wait for help."

CAN gets five to 10 calls weekly from Lee residents needing help paying daily expenses. Although the organization has expanded into Bonita Springs and Estero, she said, it cannot afford to continue the expansion of services farther north.

Even after CAN moved into south Lee and received a $33,000 grant from Komen last year, there still were patients needing financial assistance who were turned away.

"When someone calls from Lee County, I'm sitting at my desk with my fingers crossed hoping the person says Bonita Springs or Estero," Larimer said.

Still, she touts the organization's success, noting it's helped 1,000 Collier families with nearly $1.5 million in the past 10 years for rent, utilities and other living expenses.

"We get many people from Lee County, and we don't know where to turn," said Marianne Larimer, executive director of The Cancer Alliance of Naples. "It's a terrible thing to know these people might be evicted or have their utilities turned off while they wait for help."

"If a group of people from Lee County want to help set up something like this, I assure you, I'd be happy to help anybody," Larimer said.

Sandy Zinschlag founded LIGHT in Estero and receives a Komen grant, which helps her group cover medical expenses for patients who are underinsured. Those without insurance need more help than her organization can provide now, Zinschlag said.

Like CAN, LIGHT's services are limited to the community where the money is raised. For example, if money is raised in North Naples, LIGHT attempts to use that money exclusively to serve people in that area.

"It doesn't seem like Lee County is as organized getting things off the ground," Zinschlag said. "We find it difficult to get the business community behind us."

Zinschlag, a former oncology nurse, watched patients succumb to financial ruin.

"I saw the need to raise money to give relief to these people," she said.

She started in 2007 with a $19,000 Komen grant, and her budget this year was $74,000, which has helped nearly 40 people with medical bills. Unfortunately that money isn't available to Alderman even though most of her medical bills are in Collier County.

"It depends on how much money we have in bank; if we have the funds, we would do everything we could to help them," Zinschlag said.

* * * * *

Sore, cracked and often bleeding hands prevent Susan Alderman from working as a massage therapist to be able to buy the health insurance she desperately needs.

Attempts to rectify a clerical error in her Medicaid policy have resulted in a frustrating game of phone tag, placing the brunt of her expenses on her weak shoulders.

"Cancer lives on stress. I don't want to feed it," Alderman said. "But I am stressed — and not about my health. It's bills. Since I was diagnosed, all the stress is financial."

Despite the struggles and only a projected 30 percent chance of surviving the year, according to Alderman, she considers herself lucky.

She has a precocious son. She has a home. She's had career success, including working as a prison guard — dubbed by her peers, "Buffy the Inmate Slayer."

To help support Alderman, check her website, http://www.teamsusanwarriorprincess.com

That's in the past. Today, Alderman is making the best of her fighting chance.

With the support of a close-knit group of friends, Alderman has raised nearly $8,000 from donations to cover her medical and living expenses since she was diagnosed.

"I'm still nickel and dime-ing," Alderman said. "But it has helped."

Yet there's a nearly $60,000 bill remaining for her chemotherapy.

High school friend Susana Pascuma, 41, organized a yard sale in her hometown of Ocala earlier this year. By the time every item had been carted off, she had $2,300 for her friend. Once Alderman paid costs she had $1,300 for her bills.

On a Saturday in March, other friends organized a fundraiser for Alderman at Dirty Gator's in Fort Myers. It featured a silent auction boasting footballs signed by Miami Dolphin stars Dan Marino and Jason Taylor, who also wrote her a personal message.

The fundraiser had gear from Florida Gulf Coast University sports teams, restaurants, signed baseball memorabilia and handmade crafts and shirts bearing the name, "Team Susan." In the end, more than $4,300 was raised.

As support grows stronger for Alderman and her faith flourishes, her cancer is still growing despite chemotherapy. Another growth was discovered in her trachea.

"I pray a lot, but it must be Roman," she said. "He's my support. He keeps me going, my inspiration. It would break my heart if he was by himself. I can't leave him alone."

__ To help support Alderman check her website, http://www.teamsusanwarriorprincess.com

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Comments » 1

Mayor_McCheese writes:

What a sad, but all too common story.

We can not turn our backs on people who need help when help exists. The problem with HC today is that as we have developed cures and treatment for a whole host of diseases, the costs of those treatments is prohibitive if you don't have insurance, and even then it is very expensive.

Never before in modern human history was there a time when cures were available but huge numbers of people could not pay. We have evolved as a society and culture (in the US) to the point where we should be able to take care of everyone who needs help. Imagine if you had a terrible disease and there were treatments but not for you because you don't have insurance.

We can and should do much better.

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