When a notice of foreclosure was served to Mayor Andi Summerville on Aug. 31, she said it didn’t come as a surprise.
“I have an abdominal desmoid tumor,” Summerville said. “It is a very rare form of cancer — only about three in 1 million people are diagnosed with it.”
It was December 2014, the 32-year-old mother of three was just elected to her first full-term on the Laramie City Council she said, and the doctors at the University of Colorado Hospital dropped a game changer on her doorstep — cancer.
“I was pregnant with my last baby,” Summerville recalled. “There was a lump in my abdomen that didn’t resolve.”
Because of the rarity of the disease, she said the treatments were still in the experimental stages and were not covered by her insurance.
“Last summer, I underwent a surgical cryoablasion procedure,” Summerville said. “There are no real protocols for desmoid tumor treatments. And, they don’t cover experimental treatments.”
With three children, City Council and cancer, Summerville said she couldn’t work full-time, causing her family to rely on her husband’s employer’s health insurance.
“We pay $1,200 a month in premiums,” she said. “The diagnosis was a bad day, but the day after — I went to the pharmacy to pick up my medicine, and I was told the insurance wasn’t going to cover it. That really hit me hard.”
One medicine she said the insurance wouldn’t pay for was Tamoxifen, a selective estrogen-receptor modulator commonly used to treat breast cancer.
“It shuts down the hormone production,” Summerville explained. “I believe a normal dose is around 25 milligrams or something, and I’m on 250 milligrams, which makes it experimental.”
In three years, Summerville said she underwent three rounds of chemotherapy, a surgical procedure and was prescribed multitudes of medication, she said.
All the while, the bills the insurance company refused to pay stacked up.
“I have accumulated north of $100,000 in medical debt,” Summerville said. “I believe strongly that every one of those providers deserves to be paid. I expected my insurance company to do that, but that’s not the case.”
She said she tried to keep her job as an investigator for the Department of Defense as long as she could, but work, parenting and city government proved too much to juggle once the chemotherapy began.
“The chemo was — I didn’t lose my hair — but it was brutal,” Summerville remembered. “I was tired, exhausted like I’ve never known and nauseous.”
However, she said she felt she made a commitment to the people who elected her, so she didn’t give up her seat on the council.
“If I had gotten the diagnosis before the election in 2014, I wouldn’t have run,” Summerville said. “But I had been elected, and that comes with a promise that I will do whatever I can to serve the people of my community.”
While Summerville said her medical specialist wasn’t willing to comment, Ivinson Memorial Hospital Meredith & Jeannie Ray Cancer Center Nurse Practitioner Nancy Halsey said desmoid tumors weren’t typical cancers, but abnormal neuroendocrine cell growths.
“We don’t see those very often at all,” Halsey said. “It typically does not metastasize, meaning it doesn’t typically spread to other parts of the body.”
The cancer center has treated about three cases since it opened about 17 years ago, she said.
“It’s really no different than any other cancer we would treat,” Halsey said. “Experimental treatments are uncommon, but we do not do experimental treatments here.”
Common treatments for the tumors include radiation and surgery, but Summerville said neither were options for her.
“Because of where the desmoid tumor is on my abdominal wall and its proximity to my heart, we couldn’t risk radiation treatment,” she said. “Typically, they would just cut it out, but it would have removed too much of my abdominal wall.”
Summerville said she applied for financial aid and was accepted into some programs, but her Wyoming residency excluded her from many of the Colorado hospital’s aid packages. She also appealed the insurance company’s decisions, but the process was drawn out and costly.
“Some of those battles, we won,” Summerville said. “Some, we didn’t.”
Nowadays, she said paying her bills is a matter of prioritizing the biggest necessity each month. Shortly after receiving the foreclosure notice, Summerville said she paid enough on her house to keep the family home.
According to the foreclosure notice, the unpaid principle balance plus interest on the home was $115,646 and the house would have been sold Sept. 6 to the highest bidder if the debt was not settled.
“It makes it difficult when you have to make sure you pay the hospital enough to be let in the door,” Summerville said. “We went through our savings pretty fast.”
The family stopped dining out and high-cost hobbies such as snowmobiling were some of the first to go, she said.
“It became a juggling act every month,” Summerville said. “I can make the house payment or pay for the chemo drugs.”
With the cryoablasion procedure stabilizing the tumor, she said she is out of the woods for now, but the debt will take much longer to cure.
“My kids are really young,” Summerville said. “They need a parent who can be up and play with them. You get a whole new perspective when you’re going through this.”