Survivor Jennifer Lyon: Palau Didn’t Get Her But Lack of Health Insurance Did

Jennifer Lyon, a contestant who came in fourth on the 2005 season of Survivor: Palau, did not survive her battle with breast cancer. The 37 year old died this week.  In the summer of 2004, Lyon felt a lump in her right breast, at the edge of a previous breast implant. She figured it was probably scar tissue from the implant and just watched it for over a year. Asked why she delayed seeing a doctor, Lyon told People magazine, “I didn’t have insurance, which is a big part of it. And it really wasn’t changing much. But a year later, I felt another lump, and then I felt something under my armpit.”  By the time she was diagnosed, she had stage 3 breast cancer, and underwent a bilateral modified mastectomy.  She also underwent months of chemotherapy. She seemed to be doing fine until 2008 when scans revealed that the cancer had come back and was now in the bones of her spine – a common location for breast cancer recurrence. Friends and family recall that despite her setbacks, Jennifer always keep a positive outlook. She became an advocate for breast cancer awareness. According to Survivor host, Jeff Probst, who kept in touch with Lyon throughout her illness, for Lyon’s last Christmas she “decided to open a Christmas tree lot so she could extend the holidays for as long as possible.” She donated all the profits to the Susan Love Cancer Research Foundation.

Lyon said being on Survivor helped her through this experience:  “Survivor’ taught me there’s an end in sight. As hard as it is, it will be over, and you have to appreciate every day.”

One of the saddest aspects of this story is that the lack of health insurance was a significant factor in Lyon’s decision to delay seeking medical attention. We’ve blogged a number of times about early detection of breast cancer being a critical factor in improving the outcome of the disease (see the story about Christina Applegate, for instance). This is even more important in young women, who might not think themselves at risk for the disease.

Mark Boguski, M.D., Ph.D. is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and is a member of the Society for Participatory Medicine, "a movement in which networked patients shift from being mere passengers to responsible drivers of their health" and in which professional health care providers encourage "empowered patients" and value them as full partners in managing their health and wellness.

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