This Woman With Stage 4 Breast Cancer Is Fighting for Health Coverage for All


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Kelly Gregory entered adulthood as an Airman First Class in the Air Force. Since then she has become a single mother, a business owner, and, most recently, a health care activist living with stage 4 (metastatic) breast cancer. Now 48, Gregory is speaking out in her home state of Tennessee and across the country about the importance of affordable health care for all.

Long before her breast cancer diagnosis, Gregory was an intelligence analyst for the National Security Agency from 1990-1992.

But when she became pregnant, she saw that there was no logical way for her to continue her military career as a single mother. She left the military and began a career in real estate sales and development.

As a business owner, she provided her own health insurance. Then, in 2003, she had multiple heart attacks and was diagnosed with a genetic mutation in her red blood cells that caused clotting. “Before this, my health insurance premiums were $127 per month, with a $1,500 deductible,” she says, but within two years of her cardiac issues, her premiums had skyrocketed.

This meant Gregory had to scramble for to find health insurance she could afford. She found a new plan, but its coverage was poor. She looked into TennCare—Tennessee’s Medicaid program—which at the time had relatively lenient coverage requirements. She was required to drop her insurance in order to apply. But while she was gathering the paperwork, Tenncare’s eligibility requirements changed, and she was shut out of the program. She lost health insurance in 2006; then in 2008, with the recession, she lost her business.

Just as Gregory was regrouping professionally, she had another health scare.

“I started putting my resume back out within my field in 2010—and then found a lump in my breast in December,” she says. “I tried to tell myself it was something else. Finally I went to Planned Parenthood, in June of 2011.” The screening did not go well.

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“Everyone knew it was bad,” Gregory says. “The tech who screened me appeared visibly upset. The radiologist gave me his home phone number. And this was before any biopsy.”

Cancer had traveled from her breast to her spine, putting her at stage 4. “If I had had well-woman visits in the years leading to this,” she says, “maybe it would have been caught before it spread. But I didn’t, and it wasn’t.”

“When I was diagnosed, I could suddenly get Medicaid,” she explains. Due to the current TennCare requirements, and some other factors, she had not been able to qualify as a healthy adult; but once she was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, she was accepted and finally got the coverage she so desperately needed.

The statistics say that someone with Gregory’s diagnosis has a five-year relative survival rate of about 22 percent. But six years later, her health is stable.

“I expected to die soon after I was diagnosed,” Gregory reveals. And though she’s pushing through, her journey has been an exhausting one.

Starting in August of 2011, Gregory had six months of chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy, and 30 rounds of radiation. She has had nine surgeries since her diagnosis—and multiple complications. She continues to require various medications, both as part of her cancer treatment and to handle the effects of treatment.

“I have not gone a year since my diagnosis without ending up in the E.R.,” she says.