Jan. 24, 2008 -- Actress Marcia Cross is more often found on Wisteria Lane, or the pages of celebrity magazines, but this week, she was found in Washington, D.C., lending her name to the effort to mandate minimum hospital stays for mastectomies.
The Emmy and Golden Globe nominated actress of ABC's "Desperate Housewives" is the new face championing the Breast Cancer Patient Protection Bill of 2007, that would stop "drive-through" mastectomies. In addition to meeting with lawmakers today, she is filming public service announcements to raise awareness of the issue.
"If it puts a face on it and that helps, then I'm the lucky one," Cross said.
Some insurance companies won't cover the costs of hospital stays for more than 24 hours after a mastectomy surgery, the surgical removal of a breast, and sometimes lymph nodes too, as part of breast cancer treatment.
Currently, 20 states mandate minimum hospital stay coverage of 48 hours after a patient undergoes a mastectomy. According to the American Cancer Society, 40,954 women died from breast cancer in 2004 and a woman in the United States has a one in eight chance of developing invasive breast cancer in her lifetime.
"It's wrong. It says something about our value of women in our society and women's health in our society," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a co-sponsor of the bill and a survivor of ovarian cancer.
Cross said she first learned about the problem of "drive-through" mastectomies when Lifetime Television approached her and told her it was planning to present 20 million signatures to Congress to bring attention to a piece of legislation that has lingered on Capitol Hill for 12 years without getting passed.
"Shocked. Shocked. I was absolutely shocked," Cross said, describing her reaction "I couldn't understand how it had happened and why this bill had been sitting around."
The bipartisan bill is modeled after a 1996 law that banned "drive-through" baby deliveries, and mandated the length of time a woman spends in a hospital after delivery. Lifetime and lawmakers supporting the mastectomy bill hope that a new advocate - such as Marcia Cross - can help "light a fire" under the 2007 version of the stalled legislation.
The bill would guarantee a minimum hospital stay of 48 hours for a woman having a mastectomy or lumpectomy, the somewhat less invasive procedure that removes part of a breast as a treatment for breast cancer.
"It seems like a very small thing to ask, that a woman have 48 hours care," Cross said.
DeLauro said that as a cancer survivor she can understand what cancer patients are going through. She was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer 20 years ago.
"When you are diagnosed with cancer, I don't care what kind, you stop listening to your doctor. You're screaming internally because you come face-to-face with your own mortality," DeLauro said.
While this is Cross' first appearance on Capitol Hill, it is not her first involvement with breast cancer advocacy. She has been a frequent co-host of the Revlon Run/Walk for Breast Cancer in Los Angeles.
"A friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago," Cross said. "She's doing fine now, but at that time, I started to get involved."
Cross clarifies that she wasn't seeking out a public advocacy role for breast cancer, but that when Lifetime called her, "It was just something I couldn't say no to, especially with the writer's strike and having time to do this," Cross said. "It's like, what's the downside? I have to go do this."
Getting the word out
Lifetime began gathering signatures and raising awareness about the problem of "drive-through" mastectomies in 1995, with public service announcements from journalist and cancer survivor Linda Ellerbee. It established a Web site, myLifetime.com, where viewers can add their names to the petition to ban the practice.
"Within six months, we had about 17,000 signatures, which at the time, was a fairly significant number," said Meredith Wagner, executive vice president of public affairs for Lifetime.
Wagner explains that the following year, DeLauro introduced the Breast Cancer Patient Protection Act in Congress.
DeLauro said she first heard about "drive-through" mastectomies when Dr. Kristen Zarfos, a Connecticut surgeon, came to her New Haven office in 1996 and asked her for help.
"She said, 'I'm fighting every single day with insurance companies. I can't get them to allow women to stay in the hospital for a period of time so that they can actually recover,' DeLauro said. "And she said, 'Do you think we can do something about it?' and I said, 'Yeah we can do something about it.'
Wagner announced that in 12 years, they have collected some 20 million signatures for the online petition.
"We feel a huge responsibility to our viewers; that we have to make this bill a reality," she said.
The Next Step
With continued promotion of the online petition and with Cross' new public service spot airing on Lifetime starting in the coming weeks, lawmakers and Lifetime hope that their message will hit home.
DeLauro intends to use the signatures on the Lifetime's petition to persuade members of Congress who are not yet supporting the bill. "[We can] take those names - because they're aggregated by district - and get them to members of Congress to say, 'These are your folks,'" she said.
DeLauro and Cross are both optimistic that this is the year that progress will be made on this bill.
"This year we have 204 bipartisan co-sponsors. We need 218 and I believe we will get 218 in the next few weeks," DeLauro said. "We make great strides but it's not, we're not there yet."