When Kim Fuller found love and a new home in rural East Tennessee, she was harboring a frightening secret.
She had discovered a lump in her right breast. She told no one—not even her daughters.
Working night shifts in Nashville as a single traveling nurse, Fuller, a Kentucky native, had decided it was time to settle down. She bought two cats and let a friend set up her profile on a dating site.
There, she found Ron Fuller, a fellow “animal freak” who had settled in the tiny town of Thorn Hill, Tenn. The two connected immediately and talked about everything before finally meeting in person. They now live on Ron’s 230-acre farm with five dogs, 17 chickens, two cats and nine goats.
Before their marriage, Kim knew she should get a mammogram but she had inadvertently bought health insurance that provided for catastrophic coverage alone and didn’t cover basic healthcare.
Newlywed and now under Ron’s insurance plan, she went in for screening, which confirmed her suspicions: breast cancer.
She traveled to Knoxville to see specialists at the Knoxville Comprehensive Breast Center and Tennessee Cancer Specialists. There doctors recommended a lumpectomy and proton therapy for breast cancer at Provision CARES Proton Therapy Center. Then the couple learned Ron’s benefits only went so far.
The insurance company denied Kim’s request for proton therapy.
Through the process of diagnosis, the Fullers realized they didn’t want to opt for conventional radiation therapy. Although proven effective at killing cancer, radiation treatment that uses photons also damages healthy tissue and organs surrounding the tumor. This makes future health issues such as heart and lung disease and secondary cancer a greater possibility in the future.
Proton therapy, and in Provision’s case pencil beam therapy in particular, targets treatment specifically at the cancer site. Protons, by their nature, expend all energy in a fixed location. This makes it easier to focus treatment on the cancer site and spare areas around the tumor.
“You wouldn’t want to subject yourself let alone someone you care about to the old style of radiation,” Ron says.
The insurance battle
In spite of the fact proton therapy has been successfully used and FDA-approved to treat many types of cancer for the past 30 years, the insurance company declared the treatment experimental and refused to cover Kim’s treatment. The Fullers have made repeated appeals to no avail. They ultimately decided to pay out-of-pocket for proton therapy.
“They basically wait you out and then when they know you’ve started treatment they deny you without recourse,” Ron says.
They often travel to Provision CARES Proton Therapy Center by helicopter—another of Ron’s hobbies—landing on a convenient grassy pad adjacent the center’s building and pond at Dowell Springs.
The ordeal has put the Fullers in activist mode. Ron, whose business Stainless Works, manufactures exhaust parts for the hot rod industry, has made t-shirts to sell, with proceeds to go to the Provision CARES Foundation, which helps support cancer patients and their families. And they plan to lobby for legislation that would encourage insurance companies like theirs to cover proton therapy.
For Kim’s part, while she initially kept her diagnosis secret she realized that many others have suffered from the disease. And she’s ready to speak out.
“We feel like this happened for a reason, and we’re not going to sit back,” she says.