'Nobody's Going to F-ing Die Because We're Poor!'

Janice walked in carrying a huge new juicer -- a good one. One that probably cost a couple of hundred dollars that I'm pretty sure she had a hard time coming up with. She found the money somehow, though, because her sister Cheryl needs to stay healthy. "Nobody's going to f-ing die because we're poor!"

Cheryl's fighting cancer and good food helps. And that juicer has helped a lot. Between fresh juices every day, lots of supplements, vitamins and biweekly doses of chemo, the tumors are shrinking. She's got hope and so do we.

It makes sense -- clean, vitamin-packed fruits and vegetables are good for all of us, and they're especially good when you need to clear your system of poison. Cancer is poison.

So is poverty. It kills just as surely as cancer, if more insidiously.

So, here's the story. You could say that Cheryl and I grew up together. We lived next door to each other in an absolutely beautiful place in Hawai'i (we had Section 8, which helped us pay the rent). I'd moved there with a 3-year-old and a brand-new baby to try to find a better life after bouncing from one crappy job to another in California. What I found in our new life in Hawai'i was more poverty -- and an amazing best friend. Cheryl's mother was native Hawaiian and her father was white. She was raised Hawaiian. For those of you who have lived in Hawai'i, you know the significance of this. And you might know how hard it is for nonlocals -- haoles -- to fit in and make friends. I had a really, really hard time -- I was poor and isolated and desperately lonely. Cheryl took me under her wing and quite literally saved my life.

We helped each other with our kids. We found joy in our young womanhood. We shared laughter and tears during our pregnancies, fights with our husbands, and struggles to put food on the table. We loved each other then and we love each other now.

Cheryl is a wonderful person who has raised wonderful kids. She's had amazing experiences in life. She has also had some really horrible experiences -- all of which she has risen above. She is one of the wisest people I know. Today, she's battling cancer with grace, humor and courage. And along with millions of other people in America she's struggling financially. Here are some facts:

• 15.1 percent of the population in the U.S. in 2010 was below the poverty line.
• Infant mortality rate (2012 estimates): 5.98 deaths per 1,000 live births, which ranks the U.S. 48th in a list from best (Monaco and Japan) to worst (Afghanistan).
In 2004, the U.S. had the third-highest poverty rate in 24 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. By 2011, the U.S. had the fourth-highest inequality level in 34 OECD countries, following Chile, Mexico, and Turkey.
U.S. income distribution is worse than nearly all of the 47 highly developed countries and economic regions identified by the United Nations.
Poverty can be linked to poor health, including cancer, in a variety of ways, including how difficult it is to maintain a healthy diet with too-little income.

Is poverty a carcinogen, as Samuel Broder, director of the National Cancer Institute in 1989, suggested? It's much debated, but we know for sure that there's a correlation between socioeconomic status (SES) and access to education, health care and lifestyle choices that help -- or harm -- health. And in the U.S., SES is linked to race. According to a 2011 report by the American Cancer Society, "In 2007, about 164,000 men and women aged 25-64 years died of cancer in the US. More than 60,000 (37%) of these deaths could have been avoided if all segments of the population had the same cancer death rates as the most educated whites."

So, back to Cheryl's story. She is a beautiful woman. She's lean and toned from a lifetime of running and swimming. She beat the poverty odds and has stayed healthy much of the time. But that doesn't mean it's easy to get healthy now. She needs good food, expensive vitamins and supplements -- things that Medicaid won't pay for but that will help her stay on top of the disease. And then there's gas money for the many long trips from her town to the city for chemo. Being sick is expensive. Her family will do anything they possibly can to help her beat the thing. But it's almost impossible to find the money.

People do die because they're poor in the U.S. What the hell is wrong with us as a people that we turn a blind eye to this?

The U.S. falls behind other developed nations on so many measures of well-being. Our children are more obese. Adults, too. We're just average when it comes at teaching math and sciences and, in general, at educating our children. And that's not our teachers' faults. Drug and alcohol abuses are high here in America. Cruelty and neglect of children continues to be a huge problem, and every day three women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends.

Of course, rich and middle-class people suffer from cancer and drug abuse, alcoholism, child and spouse abuse. All of these issues are complicated. So is poverty. But, when it comes right down to it, there is absolutely no reason for the kind of poverty we see in the U.S., other than the choices we have made as a nation and the cultural beliefs we hold that have at the center tolerance for inequity and the notion that poverty is a result of indolence. People aren't poor because they're lazy. It is much, much harder to be poor than it is to be financially comfortable. I know this from my own personal experience.

What's really hard is breaking free of poverty. It's almost like our entire system is geared toward keeping people exactly where they are -- fighting to get out becomes your problem. I spent many years fighting to get out of poverty. And yes, I and millions of other people benefit from programs like food stamps, welfare, housing assistance and government-funded education. Without these programs I wouldn't be where I am today. But if they were really working systemically, we simply wouldn't have so many people toiling under the yoke of poverty.

It shouldn't be this way. But changing how we view and deal with poverty will require that we all do something: help a friend in need, loan money for someone's college tuition, coach and mentor young people. Buy a juicer. And although we can't vote our way out of this problem, it's pretty clear where the lines are drawn in the debate. I will most certainly be voting for President Obama and others who will work to halt our slide into spiritual, as well as real, impoverishment as a nation.

This isn't some abstract conversation about poverty. My friend Cheryl, like millions of Americans, can't afford to buy basic things that will help her to get and stay healthy. And in a country as rich as ours, no one should f-ing die because they're poor.