Fla. Congresswoman Pushes Cancer Legislation After Surviving Own Battle

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz battled cancer and now works to help others.

March 23, 2009, 10:38 AM

March 23, 2009 — -- Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., introduces new federal legislation today that calls for a national breast-cancer education campaign that targets women between the ages of 15 and 39. The bill holds special significance for the 42-year-old because she quietly and successfully battled breast cancer in the past year.

Schultz's Breast Cancer Education and Awareness Act focuses specifically on young women.

"Young women do think we're invincible; and we don't think about it," Schultz said on "Good Morning America" today. "And it will focus on educating physicians. So many times physicians blow off a young woman when she comes in with symptoms or warning signs because they don't focus on that young women can get breast cancer."

The numbers tell a different story: Of the projected 182,460 new cases of breast cancer in women in 2008, according to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 10,000 of them, or about 5.5 percent, are younger than 40.

The risk of reoccurrence is greater in women younger than 35, according to a study from researchers at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

They found that younger women had a better chance of avoiding a return of the disease if they had a mastectomy along with radiation rather than breast-conserving therapy or mastectomy alone. The findings were similar regardless of how advanced the cancer was.

It's a mantra that has been etched into the minds of many women: Get your first mammogram at age 40.

"The focus for young women is on 40," Schultz said. "It's a fixation on 40."

It resonated with Schultz, who, at 41 and two months before her cancer diagnosis, had her first mammogram.

"It showed nothing," said Schultz, whose district includes parts of Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

But shortly after her routine checkup, the mother of three found something suspicious in December 2007.

"A little more than a year ago, I was doing a routine self-exam in the shower," she said. "[And I] did that occasionally. "[I] found a lump in my breast, at least what I thought was one [and] had my husband check it to make sure it was what I thought it was. A few days later, I went to the doctor. And then, the roller coaster began."

Wouldn't Allow Cancer to Be Her Tag Line

So Schultz found herself facing an illness that can be fatal but decided to tell only some of her family members about her diagnosis rather than make her sickness public.

"I didn't want cancer to be the tag line on my name," Schultz said in her first television interview about her diagnosis. "I wanted to get through the year as Debbie Wasserman Schultz."

She never took a day off from work, scheduling her treatments around congressional breaks. The congresswoman didn't even tell her children about her breast cancer until this past Saturday. She's now cancer-free.

"I really wanted to make sure that I could protect my children," she said. "They were 8 and 4 when I was diagnosed. I wanted to tell them that mommy was going to be OK. I didn't want it to define me."

When she finally revealed the truth to her children, it wasn't a big sitdown discussion. It was much more casual. They had known of the seven major surgeries she'd undergone in the past year but none of the details of her double mastectomy, reconstructive surgery or having her ovaries removed.

Schultz said her children asked her a few questions, but went off to play once she reassured them she was OK.

Schultz's own experience with the disease at a relatively young age has ignited her desire to get the word out to young women about breast cancer.

She cited insurance companies' reluctance to cover diagnostic tests for women younger than 40.

"And there's an important focus in the bill to provide grants for young women to get through the unique challenges we face." Schultz said, such as the reproductive issues that can arise with reconstructive surgery, dating and radiation treatment.

"They won't be able to breast-feed children down the road," said Schultz, who has been married to Steve Schultz for 18 years. "Their fertility is compromised because they go through radiation and chemotherapy. This will provide grants to organizations to help young women get through the challenges they face."

Get to Know Your Breasts

Schultz's bill encourages women to be familiar with the look and feel of their breasts because by knowing what feels normal, a young woman has a better chance of knowing when something is not right.

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