- Anna Tower-Kovesdi immigrated to the US from Hungary on a fiancé visa.
- At first, she couldn’t work. Two weeks after she started, she was diagnosed with cancer.
- She is now getting treatment in Denver.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Anna Tower-Kovesdi. It has been edited for length and clarity.
In December 2021, a few days before Christmas, I started to feel exhausted. I thought it was just a long year catching up with me. In July that year, I moved to the US on a fiancé visa, the same type made famous by the hit TLC show “90 Day Fiancé.” My then-fiancé and I had 90 days to get married, and during that time, I couldn’t work.
Our marriage went off without a hitch, and once we were wed, I applied for a temporary green card. That critical immigration document would mean I could work again. With COVID-19, I had heard that the process was slow, but I was lucky enough to get my green card only five months after I arrived. I also applied for a Social Security number, though I didn’t technically need one.
It felt like our life in the US was really getting started. So in December, I went with my husband for a work trip to Chicago to celebrate. During the weekend, I started to feel tired, and when we got home, I knew something was very wrong. I Googled my symptoms: exhaustion, strange bruises, and hair loss. That’s why I saw the word leukemia. But I told myself not to think the worst.
I visited urgent care. Then the hospital told me to come in right away.
A few days later, my husband brought me to urgent care. We hoped that would be more affordable than going to my general practitioner. The urgent-care center did a lot of blood work and told me a doctor would be in touch the next day.
That night at 9 p.m., the local emergency room called. They told me to pack a bag and be at the hospital within an hour with my husband. At that point, we both knew something was seriously wrong.
When we arrived, a doctor brought me back for testing. I was alone because of COVID-19 precautions. She told me there was an 80% chance that this was leukemia. Trying to be an optimist, I asked her about the other 20%. She just looked at me and said, “It’s leukemia.”
That night, I was airlifted to a bigger hospital in Denver.
Being an immigrant with cancer was terrifying
Cancer is always scary. But cancer as an immigrant is particularly terrifying. I wasn’t familiar at all with the American medical system, let alone insurance. I was digesting complex information in a language that isn’t my native tongue.
The finances were difficult, too. I had just started working again after months without income. While I’m here legally as a permanent resident, I’m not entitled to government benefits like unemployment insurance. I didn’t have disability pay because I had been working here for only two weeks — my decades of work in Hungary didn’t count for anything. We had to turn to crowdfunding to help pay our bills.
Yet if I have to face cancer, I’m glad I’m doing it in the US rather than Hungary. I doubt my husband and I would be together if I had been diagnosed before we met: Orchestrating an international relationship while dealing with cancer would have been too much.
Then, there’s the quality of care. In Denver, I’m at a hospital that specializes in blood cancers. I have a private room, wonderful food, and access to exercise equipment when I’m feeling up to using it. That made my 37-day hospital stay bearable. In Hungary, I would have been in a room with three other patients eating bread and butter.
I worry about immigrants who don’t have the resources I do
I’m still in treatment and will be for months. I haven’t had the chance to enjoy life in America yet. But I know I’m getting the best care possible. My oncologist, an immigrant from Italy, did his best to make sure I understood everything that was happening. I appreciated that.
When I’m not thinking about my future, I worry about the other immigrants facing cancer. Many of them don’t have the privileges I do: speaking English, having health insurance and a Social Security number, and having a spouse that knows at least a bit about the system. It’s so frightening to be in a different country speaking a different language. It can make you feel totally alone.