Locals navigate through diagnoses of terminal illness

Communities, nonprofits offer support
By: Sara Seyydin Journal Staff Writer
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Denise VonMillanich knows the weight of having a child diagnosed with a terminal illness all too well. She also knows the sorrow and grief that accompanies a child passing away. These diagnoses also often come with the weight of expensive treatments and high medical costs. A weight that can be even more burdensome for the 48.5 million Americans without health insurance, according to a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and released in November 2011. This year, Placer County health officials say they expect double the number of applications for MediCal, California’s programs that pays for medical costs for “limited income” adults and children. While some communities, local organizations and government services aim to try to ease the financial burdens on those with terminal illnesses, navigating through them can still be a complex process. Avenues for financial help with treatment The help of certain programs enabled VonMillanich said her family to focus on her daughter Jolene’s life, rather than the possibility of her death, without wondering how they would pay for treatment. After having her breasts removed Jolene lost her job as a medical assistant because her cognition wasn’t as good, VonMillanich said. If her daughter wouldn’t have been on MediCal, VonMillanich said the medical costs would have been insurmountable for their family. “When she lost her job she lost her medical. I can’t even imagine. It would have been probably been in the millions,” VonMillanich said. Driving to San Francisco for many medical appointments and chemotherapy were two of the biggest costs. VonMillanich said The American Cancer Society and The Susan G. Komen Organization provided practical things for Jolene, like gas cards and even a month of her rent. Along with the financial support from MediCal and emotional support of family and friends, she said she relied on her faith. While it wasn’t always easy, she said her daughter always stayed positive. “Through prayer and faith. We have cried all the way home from San Francisco before. She had so much grace and dignity. I am really thankful for that. That is what gave me strength as well,” VonMillanich said. “She always said ‘I love you’ every time she hung up the phone. That’s really important.” Placer County MediCal applications double Cheryl Davis, director of the Human Services Division of the Placer County Department of Health and Human Services, said that VonMillanch was probably part of a branch of the MediCal program designed specifically for those with a terminal illness. She said while the department doesn’t keep track of how many people with terminal illnesses are on MediCal, there are currently 9,242 people on MediCal total in Placer County. “At the beginning of the recession we had just barely 8,000,” Davis said. “Our applications are way up. So at the beginning of the recession we took in about 5,000 applications a year. We are on target to take double the applications this year.” Davis said one trend she has noticed is that some people wait until they are very sick before applying for government assistance. “A lot of them have worked their whole lives and always had health insurance and never thought they would be in a position to need help. They really resist coming in and try every other way to support themselves, so they sometimes wait until they are very ill,” Davis said. “We have had a lot of that example.” Costs can be $50,000 out-of-pocket In her work as a childhood cancer family navigator for the Keaton Raphael Memorial, Terry Balbierz helps connect families with practical things they need every day. While social workers often assist the families with getting medical costs covered, there are many other expenses for them, she said. Through donations and connecting with private businesses, The Keaton Raphael Memorial has provided families in need with other necessities though, like money for travel costs, new tires, housecleaning services and more. Each family selected for one special program gets a Hope Chest full of resources, a handmade blanket and small gifts for the child and their siblings. “I think for the most part just the diagnosis alone is very overwhelming for the family. Of all the families I have worked with they are kind of in a fog when they first get the diagnosis,” Balbierz said. “They can expect to have $50,000 of out-of-pocket expenses. We don’t dive into too much as far as insurance goes. Even if you have good insurance, if you have co-pays or max out, your are looking possibly at $100,000 that you are going to pay off over time.” Communities helping their own When Claudia Cheeseman found out her friend Lorin Hembree was diagnosed with cancer she used her resources as owner of Bob and Betty’s 160 Club in Auburn to help her. Last month Cheeseman held a fundraiser for Hembree, who lives in Foresthill. “Lorin’s husband used to work for me and we have been pretty close. My dad just died of caner. I had had friends that died of cancer,” Cheeseman said. “When my father died a lot of people helped me with things that needed to be done and we just want to pay it forward.” The community raised $1,000 for Hembree at the fundraiser. Cheeseman said one local doctor even helped Hembree learn how to get her treatment covered since she didn’t have insurance before she was diagnosed. For VonMillanich, although Jolene passed away in October 2011, at the age of 25, the help from the community and other services gave the chance to spend every day making memories. “She was like my sunshine. She woke up everyday and she was happy,” VonMillanich said. “She was the brains and the beauty of the family. We decided not to grieve until after she passed. We just decided to make a lot of memories.” Reach Sara Seyydin at, or follow her on Twitter @AJ_News. ______________________________________________________ Kettwig fights back against cancer Community offers long-time CHP officer their support When Todd Kettwig was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer in November, his family, community and fellow law enforcement officers rallied to support him. He, like other Auburn-area residents, has gained strength and hope from the kindness of those around him as he, his wife and two daughters focus on his treatment. Kettwig, a California Highway Patrol officer and public information officer for the California Highway Patrol Gold Run Office, said because of the dangers in his job he hasn’t had to worry too much about medical expenses. Even still, the community has offered him their unwavering support. “I have had no issues with medical expenses. Being in the position I am in and because of the risks involved, a lot more is covered for us,” Kettwig said. “The No. 1 thing is keep fighting, believe in hope and faith. When you allow others to help you, it also helps them. What do you say to someone who has cancer?” Kettwig recently started chemotherapy treatment and has seen great signs of progress – there is no new cancer growth, his tumor is draining and the prognosis is he is headed toward remission. The fundraisers, meals and prayers have all been a reminder that the Kettwigs aren’t facing their battle against cancer alone. “The thing about cancer is it takes everything that you have and anything that you are going to have. The only thing to do is fight back against it,” Kettwig said. “Talk to others that are in a similar situation. Don’t try to deal with it on your own.” Kettwig said the outpouring of support has been wonderful and he hopes to be able to continue to give back his community for many years to come. “I am very, very fortunate, myself and my family,” Kettwig said. “I have accomplished more than I ever could have dreamed of in my lifetime and now I want to be able to maintain that, so that I’ll be able to continue giving back.” Reach Sara Seyydin at, or follow her on Twitter at AJ_News.