During the 2020 NFL season, the Washington Football Team’s former head coach, Ron Rivera, faced a formidable opponent off the field – squamous cell carcinoma. Rivera’s story goes beyond the gridiron, highlighting not just his resilience as a coach but his tenacity in the face of a cancer diagnosis. His journey, which included an unexpected battle with health insurance for coverage of proton therapy, sheds light on the broader issue of insurance barriers in accessing advanced cancer treatments.
His treatment plan, directed by Dr. Paul Bajaj, MD at Inova, included chemotherapy and seven weeks of proton therapy. Proton therapy, known for its precision in targeting tumors while sparing healthy tissue, was recommended to minimize side effects and keep him “in the game.”
The unexpected hurdle in Rivera’s journey came when his health insurance denied coverage for the specialized proton therapy his physician had recommended. Frustration and shock set in, but with the support of the Inova team, Coach Rivera launched an appeal that ultimately overturned the insurance denial.
The experience left him disheartened, realizing that many other patients faced similar obstacles, delaying their treatments or forcing them into alternative therapies. “If this could happen to me,” he says. “What was happening to patients who didn’t have the public profile and quality insurance that I had?”
During this time, Coach Rivera met Denise Durgin, another cancer patient in the battle against insurance barriers. Denise’s own struggle with insurance denial for proton therapy, following a breast cancer diagnosis, prompted her to document the stories of patients, including Coach Rivera, in a book. Denise and Coach Rivera later joined the NAPT Patient Advocate Community, providing a platform for patients to share their experiences and support one another.
Today, Coach Rivera emphasizes the pivotal role of proton therapy in saving his life. “I think that’s something that people need to understand, that there is an alternative form of radiation treatment out there,” he says, underlining the importance of raising awareness about proton therapy as a viable and effective option.
While Coach Rivera’s triumph over cancer is a beacon of hope, it also draws attention to the broader issue of insurance barriers that limit patients’ choices in pursuing innovative and potentially life-saving treatments. The struggle for coverage not only adds stress to an already challenging situation but can also result in delayed or compromised treatments.
Coach Rivera’s personal victory over cancer did not mark the end of his journey. With a passion fueled by his own experience, he advocates for improved insurance coverage and increased accessibility to proton therapy for all cancer patients.
“I never missed a game during my treatment, and I am now cancer-free and feeling great,” he proudly states, vowing to continue the fight for change.