After living with cancer for nine years, I'd learned more than anyone would want to know about the American medical system. So I decided to get closer to the Canadian system – much closer. Last September, I posted this personal ad on my blog, The Assertive Cancer Patient:Assertive, adventurous 52-year-old woman, living with incurable cancer, would like to meet a marriage-minded Canadian gent who is a cancer survivor or living with the disease. Me: Writer, artist, teacher, well-known cancer blogger. Mother of two almost-grown sons (22 and 17). ... Financially solvent except for absurdly expensive health insurance premiums and medical costs. Dislikes: Pink ribbons, chemotherapy, and unsolicited advice. You: Age 45 to about 57. Canadian citizen living in Vancouver, B.C., or willing to relocate there. Cancer patient or survivor. Open-minded. Bit of a risk taker. Warm hearted but not clinging. Bald OK.
So far, this ad has not netted me a Canadian husband. But it has taught me some lessons about health and happiness north and south of the 49th parallel.
Health care is a hot-button issue there, just as it is in the United States. About a dozen men answered my ad, but I got many, many more responses from journalists, including half a dozen calls from Canadian talk radio. They showed that two issues get Canadians up in arms: the high taxes they pay to have health care that is virtually free to users. And wait times and access to care. When I appeared on Dave Rutherford's Calgary-based national radio show, he warned that I would have to wait months for an MRI in Canada. (Cancer patients in Canada assure me that this is an urban legend. They get scans and tests promptly.)
Canadian men don't like red Corvairs. Not one person who answered my ad asked about the car in the accompanying photo: a red 1964 Corvair convertible. In Seattle, this car stops traffic. Total strangers leave love notes (to the car, sigh ...) on the seat when it's parked in public. More strangers approach and tell me their Corvair stories (i.e., "I lost my virginity in a car just like that.") I've learned not to drive the Corvair when I am in a hurry. I bought it a year ago, and I'm writing a screenplay in which it plays a starring role. It's a chick flick, loosely based on my life, about three women, a dog, and a red Corvair.
Many Canadians have no sense of humor. My ad was intended as a political statement. I've teetered on the brink of bankruptcy for years, and I'm tired of waiting for guaranteed, affordable health care. When I posted the ad, I added a footnote: "If I do marry a Canadian citizen, I expect the Canadian government to send George Bush, or whoever follows him into the Oval Office, a bill for the $300,000 annual cost of my cancer care." Many Canadians missed that part. I got e-mails accusing me of selfishness, attempted fraud, and worse. "Stay outta Canada!" read one. "My taxes are high enough as it is. Parasite!!"
Some Canadians have a sense of humor. Selome, a 21-year-old black woman and student at the University of Toronto, e-mailed me a marriage proposal. "I'm offering my hand in marriage if it will help you receive treatment without having to declare bankruptcy," she wrote. "Same sex marriage is perfectly legal in Ontario so I'd be more than willing to help you out. ... I'm not even gay, actually." It was hard not to go ahead with this, just to get the talk-radio listeners in an uproar.
Even when Canadians say "Keep out," they say it politely. Canadians deserve their reputation for politeness. Even the "Stay out of Canada" e-mails usually ended with good wishes. Some, including a pastor in Manitoba, wrote to say they would look for likely marriage candidates. Rutherford is considered Canada's answer to Rush Limbaugh, but neither he nor his callers harangued me on the air. Rush could take lessons.
Marriage is not the only way to get into Canada. A number of people wrote surprisingly detailed letters suggesting other ways to legally enter Canada, including applying as a political refugee or entering with enough cash to start a business that would employ Canadians. I've saved all these letters, just in case.
Quacks and other predators exist everywhere. My blog is a magnet for people selling miracle cancer cures — you know, the kind "your doctor doesn't want you to know about." Dozens of e-mails suggesting various "cures" flooded in after I appeared on the front page of the Toronto Star. Wormwood. An ancient Chinese folk remedy. Vitamin B-17. Apricot and apple seeds. Sodium bicarbonate, complete with step-by-step instructions for injecting it; did they think I was going to treat myself?
None of these folks seemed to notice that I had advertised for a husband, not a cancer cure. But for sheer chutzpa, none could top Philip, the Seattle mortgage broker who'd tried to sell me a three-year ARM back in 2004, after I wrote in Seattle Weekly about being "a breast cancer poster child." I didn't bite on the three-year ARM, which came with up-front fees north of $7,000. If I had, I would have lost my house this fall when the rate reset to an interest rate I couldn't afford.
Two months ago, after I appeared on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's front page, I got another e-mail: "This is Philip, the mortgage loan officer whose help [sic] you declined a couple years ago." He asked if I wanted to attend a party with him. Uh, huh. Sure. Whatcha selling this time, Philip?
Through all the interviews, I endlessly debated the quality of health care here and in Canada. Finally, one question remained: Do I really want to get my cancer care there? For an answer, I turn to the experts, Canadians with cancer. Laurie, who has metastatic breast cancer, put the lie to Dave Rutherford:You know what really pisses me off? When American pundits or journalists write about how Canadians face long waits for cancer treatment (implying that this is due to our system of universal health care). I found my lump in December 2005, was diagnosed by January 2006 and had surgery on February 2. I began chemotherapy in March. ... Waiting for treatment has never, ever been an issue. I am enormously grateful for the Canadian health care system.
I'd be grateful, too, and happy to pay Canadian taxes, if they'd just let me in.