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She’s outlived her insurance

John Strachan and Ginene Swanson, who is fighting cancer, plan a fund-raising cruise. - RHONDA PARKS MANVILLE/Staff Photo
John Strachan and Ginene Swanson, who is fighting cancer, plan a fund-raising cruise.
— image credit: RHONDA PARKS MANVILLE/Staff Photo

Now islander Ginene Swanson can only count on the help of community.

Ginene Swanson has defied the odds, surviving three years with a metastic kidney cancer that was supposed to kill her in four months.

Now she has a new problem: Her insurance coverage is about to end. And the Medicare plan that will kick in won’t pay for the treatments that have kept her alive.

“Let me tell you: you do not want to get an ongoing, terminal disease in America,” said Swan­son’s hus­band and advocate, John Strachan, shaking his head.

But Swanson, 52, and Strachan, 70, did not give up when she was diagnosed, and they are not giving up now.

They have planned a benefit sunset dinner cruise and concert featuring Cape Verde singer Maria de Barros (god-daughter of the famed Cesaria Evora) and her band, with L.A. singer and comedian Robert Goldman opening the show. The event will be from 6 to 10 p.m. April 1, aboard the Royal Argosy cruise ship, sailing from Seattle’s Pier 56.

Their hope is that the net proceeds from the event – the entertainers have donated their time – will pay for six more months of treatments at the Seattle Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center, in addition to herbal therapy and acupuncture with a practitioner of Chinese medicine.

Strachan is marketing the event wherever he goes, discovering that everyone has been touched by cancer in some way. With a background in the film industry, he and his son recently made a documentary film about battling cancer, featuring his wife and other survivors, calling it “Proof Positive.”

“John is such an optimist,” his wife said. “He is so certain I will beat this, that it is catching on.

“Sometimes I wake up tired and depressed and achy, and I have to remember that some older people wake up that way every day. I go to the clinic, and there’s always someone there who is sicker. Or younger. I have had 50 good years.”

The disease has spread from her kidneys to her liver, abdomen and spine.

Still, she says, “When I compare how I am now, to where I was a couple of years ago, I am doing well,” said Swanson, curled up on a couch with a cup of tea. “Other than an ulcer, I am doing great.”

She and her husband believe that they will soon have to leave their rental home in Eagledale for a smaller, more affordable place in Suquamish or Indianola.

“This has been a good place for healing,” Swanson said, looking out at the garden she used to tend, which produced cut flowers. “But I think we’re going to have to downsize one more time to pay for medicine.”

Saints

Despite their predicament – $3,000 monthly medical bills and little income to pay for them – the couple is upbeat.

Friends and relatives have loaned them money and helped with chores. The landlord has given them slack when the money ran low.

A volunteer from the Interfaith Council – to the couple, “a saint”– has begun coming to the house to work in the garden.

“We’ve had practice living on the edge, and yet look at all our blessings,” Swanson said. “We live in this house, and we have been blessed with people who have been compassionate and helpful.”

Among those are the singer de Barros, who heard through a friend in Los Angeles that Swanson loved her music, and in turn offered to donate her talent to the benefit show, as did Goldman.

All the musicians and singers are being put up for free at Island Country Inn, thanks to a donation from a member of Swanson’s cancer support group.

“I have had many miracles and gifts,” said Swanson, who met her husband in the 1970s, at a recording studio where they worked.

She was an aspiring singer working as a secretary, and he was a producer. When she handed him her tape, he listened to it and booked her to sing on commercials.

And they fell in love. Strachan has lived on the island since 1967, his children attending local schools.

Swanson moved to Washington with him in 1980.

She continued to sing, taught tap dancing to seniors at a house near the ferry terminal, and painted with watercolors, supplementing her income over the years with various office and graphic arts jobs.

She had insurance from her previous office job on the island when she was diagnosed with cancer on Aug. 19, 2002.

Six months after complaining about a sore leg, thinking it was sciatica, doctors found stage four renal cell (kidney) cancer, and tumors that were the source of her pain.

Since the cancer was advanced and incurable, Swanson decided to undergo various experimental treatments and clinical trials, using a mix of Western and Eastern treatment modalities, all with the support of her oncologist, Dr. Ben Chue of Seattle.

“I have been led to wonderful doctors who think out of the box, who don’t patronize me, and who respect my right to make decisions,” she said. “That’s a real gift.”

Now three years into treatment, Swanson is focusing more of her attention into her spiritual well-being. She found it hard to do when she was heavily medicated and battling her disease.

Stabilized physically, she is working on forgiveness and taking responsibility for her own happiness.

When she thinks negatively or critically, she reminds herself that she is “thinking small.”

“I am trying to remember my wholeness” she said. “I am trying to find a mantra that will continuously remind me that I am not just of this body, and not just of this world.

“Sometimes that’s when we grow – when we’re on our knees.”

* * * * *

Music for life

A sunset dinner cruise, with music of Maria de Barros and her band, will help pay for Ginene Swanson’s cancer treatments. The cruise is 6-10 p.m. April 1 aboard the Royal Argosy, from Seattle’s Pier 56. Get tickets ($85) from www.ginene.com or Zamboanga.

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