Originally published in India-West newspaper, Reprinted in New America Media, March 31, 2013
By Monica Luhar
Thirty-two-year-old Arijit Guha, a Ph.D. student at Arizona State University and founder of the popular Poop Strong campaign, died March 22, after battling stage four colon cancer for the past two years.
The Indian American graduate student spoke to India-West in an earlier interview last year (I-W, Nov. 18) about his frustration with a “broken healthcare” system and his struggle to pay the rest of his cancer bills after maxing out on a $300,000 lifetime cap placed by an Aetna student health insurance plan at ASU.
In 2011, Guha was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer after returning from a trip to India with his wife. Soon after, he began to experience gastrointestinal problems and vomited frequently. After consultations with doctors, he learned that he had a large tumor – nearly six centimeters wide — in his colon. Despite undergoing a colonoscopy, the cancer later spread to Guha’s abdominal cavity.
During the months following chemotherapy treatments, Guha used social media to initiate a discourse about the healthcare system, not expecting the CEO of Aetna, Mark Bertolini, to respond. Much to his surprise, Bertolini tweeted Guha and asked Aetna to pay the remainder of Guha’s cancer bills – an additional $118,000 that Guha had accumulated while he was uninsured after maxing out on the student health plan.
“If [someone] has some sort of dire, catastrophic health event, the insurance can’t kick them off because they are too expensive – and that’s exactly why we need insurance more than any other time,” Guha had told India-West in the earlier interview.
Guha was hesitant to credit social media for playing a role in helping pay off the rest of his cancer bills. In that interview, he explained that social media was not the solution to problems that many individuals, both uninsured and insured, face.
“There’s hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people in very similar situations to mine, where they’ve had inadequate insurance or were underinsured. It’s not as if you can expect each person to tweet at the CEO of their insurance company and have their bills magically paid out,” Guha had pointed out to India-West.
In February of 2012, Guha, characterized as a “rabble rouser, do-gooder, mustache enthusiast,” launched his campaign, PoopStrong.org, as a way to pay the rest of his cancer bills by selling t-shirts, bracelets, and other merchandise. But he didn’t just stop there.
Guha told India-West that since Aetna agreed to pay off his remaining cancer bills, he would make sure that the rest of the $130,000 that he had raised through his campaign would go directly to three main cancer organizations: the University of Arizona Cancer Center’s Patient Assistance Fund, The Wellness Community-Arizona, and the Colon Cancer Alliance.
Guha had taken a break from chemotherapy last summer and used the time to travel with his wife and enjoy life. But shortly after, Guha began experiencing abdominal pain and ended up in the hospital again.
“We learned that the tumors had returned and were putting pressure on his bowels, creating blockages and essentially shutting down his GI tract,” a post from his blog titled “Stage IV Hope” noted.
In December of 2012, Guha had a gastrostomy tube placed in his stomach to prevent him from experiencing nausea and vomiting. His vomiting ceased for some time, but other problems surfaced.
Guha ended up undergoing another round of chemotherapy, to regulate his digestive system. But this time, the chemotherapy failed to work after surgeons realized that the tumors had reentered his abdominal cavity. Instead of going through additional rounds of treatments, Guha made the decision to end treatment and focus on hospice care. He died in his home, surrounded by family and friends in Arizona.