News & Politics

Rebecca Ritzel’s Student Loan Provider Didn’t Seem to Care That She Had Cancer. So She Took Action.

How does a bill become law? In the case of one signed by the President last September, it happened when a journalist became an advocate—when I got up the guts to go to Capitol Hill without a notebook, with just my heart and my history. The cause was student-loan debt relief for sick people. Nothing sexy. Unless you believe gynecological cancer is sexy, in which case it was hot.

I was diagnosed with malignant tumors on my ovaries in 2015 at age 36, but as a writer with some name recognition around town, I concealed my illness while in treatment. My Washington Post editors sent flowers, but some colleagues didn’t know anything beyond that I was having surgery. During chemo, I wrote my theater column when I was in too much pain to walk. I “froze” my head with cold caps during infusions and (mostly) preserved my curly red hair.

But an unsympathetic customer-service rep for my student-loan provider knew my full story. I called when I had only two weeks to prepare for major surgery (known around cancer wards as “debulking”). How could I keep making payments on my overpriced graduate degree when I was about to lose income from both my column and my part-time teaching?

My loan provider didn’t care. But it turns out Congress did. In September 2017, two years after finishing treatment, I came out as a cancer patient by sharing my story in a New York Times op-ed. An agent was preparing to shop around my proposal for a memoir, and he wanted me to become a “celebrity” cancer survivor—an op-ed would help. I’d heard about a bill in the works that would allow patients to defer their loans penalty-free, so I decided to lend my voice. The morning after my article ran, the congressional sponsors received dozens of calls, and 35 more representatives signed on in support.

That wasn’t enough to pass it, though, so on June 21, 2018, an alliance for cancer patients from their teens through their thirties organized the first Young Adult Cancer Action Day. We were tough customers for the House security guards, who don’t typically concede, “No concealed liquids except colostomy bags.” I made it through the detectors despite having a metal shoulder, reconstructed after my post-cancer arm bones shattered in an ice-skating accident. A double amputee in our group, however, had some issues.

Before then, I’d wandered Congress only as a journalist (shadowing students reciting poetry for representatives, listening to John Legend praise arts education), always an observer. On Action Day, I was a nervous woman talking to lawmakers about her empty checkbook and missing lady parts. I’m much braver when I write. But with each office we visited, I told my story with more confidence. “I had two weeks to prepare for surgery that was going to leave me bedridden,” I said. “We didn’t know if my cancer was terminal. Yet I had to spend precious time worrying about my loan payments. Please help. You can change this.”

Much to my surprise, they did. On September 28, President Trump signed the bill, tacked onto a “minibus” defense-spending package. No joyful Rose Garden signing ceremony. The Kavanaugh hearings were all over the news, and I relived the disappointment of my agent’s failure to sell my book about the sexual trauma that comes with developing gynecological cancer at 36. The memoir was the whole reason I’d written about the loan bill in the first place. Or was it?

The most heartfelt congratulations came from friends who’d been my caregivers: former Hill staffers, outreach directors for NGOs, labor-union negotiators. They assured me that getting a bill through Congress is a very big deal. Each embrace reminded me: So is being alive.

This article appears in the February 2019 issue of Washingtonian.