Expansion of Virginia’s Medicaid program was hanging in the balance on the floor of the Virginia Senate more than eight years ago when then-Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, made the stakes personal.
McEachin, a physically imposing man at 6 feet 5 inches, shared for the first time how his health insurance as a state legislator covered the cost of treatment of rectal cancer that had been diagnosed the previous fall.
With expansion of the program about to fail — blocking health insurance for an estimated 400,000 Virginians — he made the stakes personal for his Senate colleagues, too.
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“Oh, it’s fine for us,” he said of state health care coverage. “But we would deny that to people who work every day ... How dare we?”
It took another four years for Virginia to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, but McEachin is still setting an example — this time with his death this week after dealing for nine years with the side effects of cancer treatment that may not have been necessary if he had been screened for the disease sooner.
“Don’t fool around. Don’t go through my journey. Go to the doctor,” McEachin told a packed audience at a Richmond theater screening of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” a sequel filmed after the death of Chadwick Boseman, who starred in the original “Black Panther.”
Less than two weeks after that appearance, McEachin died suddenly at his South Richmond home. He was 61. Three weeks earlier, he had won a fourth term representing the 4th Congressional District, stretching from Richmond and parts of Henrico and Chesterfield counties to the North Carolina line.
The cancer hadn’t returned, but the effects of its treatment had long impacted his health, including the creation of a fistula — an abnormal connection between the bladder and colon — that he disclosed publicly to the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2018.
In his comments at the “Black Panther” screening, reported by WTVR Channel 6, he said, “Nearly every one of the health issues is related to the radiation I had to undergo to deal with my ... rectal cancer.”
Now, doctors and medical experts are using his example, as well as that of Boseman, to urge people — especially African Americans who suffer a higher rate of colorectal cancer than any other racial or ethnic group — to test for the disease, either by an outpatient colonoscopy or initially with at-home test kits.
“The best test is the test that gets done,” said Dr. Timothy Quinn, a Black doctor in Mississippi who tested himself with a Cologuard at-home kit after turning 50 recently.
Quinn, who owns Quinn Healthcare in Ridgeland, just outside of the Mississippi capital of Jackson, treats mostly Black patients, many of whom he said are reluctant to visit a doctor for a colonoscopy that involves unpleasant prepping the previous night and anesthesia to perform.
“Research has overwhelmingly demonstrated that in the African American community, we have a higher prevalence of either being diagnosed with cancer or, even worse, being diagnosed with cancer at a later stage,” he said.
Quinn is touting the examples of McEachin and Boseman to deliver the message of colorectal screening far beyond his own practice and state. But his model is his grandfather, who died of cancer but told his son to share the story so others would not wait to test for the disease.
“He felt that no death should be in vain,” his grandson said.
Getting people to test for colorectal cancer, especially at a doctor’s office, became harder during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the American Cancer Society.
“We really want to close that gap,” said Brian Donohue, director of government relations for the organization’s Cancer Action Network in Virginia.
Donohue estimated 3,610 Virginians will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer this year and 1,370 will die from the disease.
The cancer society “remains steadfast in our work to address disparities in screening that contribute to the alarming rate of colorectal cancer deaths in Virginia,” he said.
Those disparities are clearest with African American adults, according to a research paper by the national organization in 2020.
“Collectively, Black people have the highest death rates and shortest survival rates of any racial/ethnic group in the U.S. for most cancers,” the paper states.
Donohue said, “A person’s ZIP Code should not determine their access to healthcare or the quality of their healthcare.”
Long associated with older adults, colorectal cancer now is affecting people at a younger age, which is why the cancer society now recommends that people begin screening for the disease at 45 instead of 50.
“I can’t stress to you enough the importance of early detection,” McEachin said at the “Black Panther” screening.
He often set an example for others to follow in providing or seeking health care, but it wasn’t easy for a man who generally kept details of his own health private and refused to let his personal struggles affect his public service.
Before McEachin disclosed his cancer diagnosis to the Senate in 2014, he had been undergoing chemotherapy treatment during the legislative session without even telling his staff.
“He went to chemo without ever saying a word, without ever missing a vote,” recalled Abbi Easter, his self-described “chief of stuff” then and a longtime political consultant, aide and friend.
“He went to chemo but still put his constituents and the Senate first,” Easter said Friday. “It was unbelievable what he did.”
And, by his legacy — she said — continues to do.
Gallery: Congressman A. Donald McEachin