Surviving medical debt: Savannah's story of battling breast cancer and now medical bills

Photo credit: Savannah Celestino

All it takes is one accident or one diagnosis to change your life. While battling illness or injury, the last thing anyone wants to worry about is money. However, people across the country are struggling to pay for life-saving treatments. For the next few weeks, FOX66 and NBC25 will be exploring medical debt and the reality our mid-Michigan neighbors face every day.

Many might think, "but I have insurance, I’ll be covered if something sends me to the hospital," and yes, you might be financially alright. However, you might not be: more than 60 percent of people with medical bill problems have insurance according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. That number includes 32-year-old Savannah Celestino of Gladwin Co. She survived breast cancer, but is now fighting for her financial health.

“I never thought it was going to be me,” Celestino said. She had no history of breast cancer and no reason to think she’s at-risk.

Celestino is a registered nurse and is in the habit of checking her breasts for lumps. After her work out at the local gym on Christmas Eve last year, she jumped in the shower and felt something unusual.

“I wasn't sure if I was overreacting so I had my husband check,” she said, “he looked at me in shock and said oh my God what is that?”

Her doctor told her it’s probably nothing, she was only 31-years-old at the time, but get a mammogram just to be safe.

“The hospital is about five minutes from my house,” Celestino said, “by the time I walked in my door and was kicking my shoes off, I was getting a call saying I need a biopsy. It was that fast.”

On Feb. 1, she received a cancer diagnosis: DCIS, or cancer in the milk ducts of her left breast. Her right breast looked suspicious, too.

About a week later, Feb. 9, Celestino was in the hospital for a double mastectomy.

“They said it was hard to decipher what was breast cancer and what was tissue on my left side,” Celestino said.

The silver lining: the cancer didn’t spread to her lymph nodes, meaning no chemo or radiation. Celestino simply needed time to heal, both physically and emotionally.

“I had clothes that weren’t fitting like they were before and cried and my husband held me and I cried and cried and cried,” Celestino said, “and I had my sister-in-law come and take all of my stuff out of my drawers because I couldn’t stand looking at it.”

As she tried to cope with the impact of her surgery, the bills arrived.

“My mammogram was $900, my biopsy was $9,000, my mastectomy was close to $30,000,” Celestino said, “that was that was after my insurance but the Pardee is helping with that part.”

The Pardee Cancer Treatment Fund helps with some cancer-related medical expenses in Midland, Gladwin, Bay, Clare, Isabella and Gratiot counties.

However, with two children, Celestino and her husband Eduard were dealt another blow.

“My husband got laid off as soon as we found out about the cancer and I had just started working for the hospital here in town and I hadn't worked a year yet, so I couldn't qualify for any income at all while I was off,” she said.

Those daily expenses, groceries, cell phone bills, car insurance, were falling behind.

“I actually went back to work after two and a half weeks after a double mastectomy doing 12 hour shifts because of the income, she said.

That’s where the community’s stepped up with a fundraiser, a GoFundMe page and random acts of kindness.

“We've had checks just showing up in the mail from companies, one business owner from town said he was in the doctor’s office the day I got my diagnosis. He wanted to make sure I’m okay, just showed up in the mail, $100 check to help out,” Celestino said.

The cancer drained her bank account but it’s only made Celestino stronger and ready to help others.

“Humbling. I can't wait to be in the position to do it for somebody else hopefully,” she said.

Her message after all this: check your breasts. If anything is suspicious, speak up and go to the doctor. Cancer screening guidelines suggest women start with mammograms at age 40, but Celestino urges women to check for lumps and communicate with a health care professional. for more information from the American Cancer Society, please click here.

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