More than 252,000 American women were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017, according to the American Cancer Society.
Tucson resident Katy Gierlach, whose story was first reported by Tucson Weekly, was one of those women. Gierlach is also one of 750,000 uninsured Arizonans, making her diagnosis even more devastating.
When she was first diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2017, Gierlach remembers thinking that she couldn’t afford cancer. But she was fortunate to find her way to St. Elizabeth’s Health Center, a local organization that serves the healthcare needs of uninsured and underinsured Arizonans.
Gierlach received a biopsy at St. Elizabeth’s and later became one of the roughly 10 women that the clinic supports while they undergo active treatment for breast cancer. The organization also helps another 30 women who recently completed treatment, but still have follow-up appointments.
St. Elizabeth’s quite literally saved Gierlach’s life, and at no cost to her; she hasn’t paid a single bill for her cancer treatments.
The Catholic organization was first founded in 1961 by a group of Our Lady of Victory Noll Missionary Sisters, alongside a group of doctors. The breast cancer treatment and awareness program was launched by Sister Eileen Mahoney in 1999, but only provided companionship and limited resources early on, while lobbying for state funding to screen and treat women.
Funding has come and gone, but St. Elizabeth’s has persisted and become a critical resource for women in need. Many of the patients who come through St. Elizabeth’s doors are low-income and the organization also treats patients regardless of immigration status, even hosting Tucson’s only breast cancer support group that regularly conducts meetings in Spanish.
Many of St. Elizabeth’s patients also have more complicated medical issues, owing to their lack of insurance and access to medical care, but St. Elizabeth’s treats them nonetheless.
And as Tucson Weekly’s reporting makes clear, while the clinic plays a critical role for its patients, it’s not financially secure.
Karrie Cravens, a nurse practitioner who manages the clinical side of the breast cancer programs at St. Elizabeth, told Tucson Weekly that she’s always worried about funding, because the clinic can’t anticipate how much each patient will cost to treat. Some patients only require a few thousand dollars, but others require as much as $50,000.
In Gierlach’s case, St. Elizabeth’s paid for her biopsy, lumpectomy, chemo, and double masectomy. They also connected her with Breast and Cervical Cancer Treatment Program through Arizona’s Medicaid program, which paid for her reconstructive surgery.
“I can’t stress enough how amazing St. Elizabeth’s was for me. It made such a hard thing doable,” Gierlach told Tucson Weekly.
St. Elizabeth’s doesn’t just offer cancer services; it provides a variety of medical services, dental services, behavioral health care, and nutrition counseling, and also operates a food pantry.
While the clinic does charge patients for many services, it also offers substantial discounts depending on income level.
Anyone interest in volunteering with St. Elizabeth’s or donating to the group can do so at saintehc.com.