November 2009

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Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz receives the PBCC’s Pink Ribbon Award for her outspoken advocacy for breast cancer education. The award was presented by Pat Halpin-Murphy (right), president and founder of PBCC, and Bonnie Squires (left), vice president for development.
News and Opinion

PA Breast Cancer Coalition Honors Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz
An outspoken advocate for breast cancer education.

-- Bonnie Squires

U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), a breast cancer survivor and advocate for health issues, received the Pink Ribbon Award from the Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Coalition (PBCC) at the PBCC Annual Conference on October 14, 2009. More than 1,000 people attended the statewide conference that took place at the Harrisburg Hilton & Towers, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Wasserman Schultz showed up in high-top sneakers, which covered the orthopedic boot she was wearing for her broken leg. She explained that she had slid into second base during a charity softball game and that was how she was injured. But it certainly has not slowed her down.

The award was presented at the luncheon session. In her acceptance speech, the Congresswoman referenced a talk by Penn State women's basketball coach Coquisse Washington who had found a lump in her breast a few weeks after the birth of her second child. The lump turned out to be benign for Williams. Wasserman Schultz was not so lucky.

Six weeks after having had a clean mammogram, Wasserman Schultz's self-exam in the shower revealed a lump. This was two years ago; she was 41 years old. It took a number of tests for doctors to decide that there was a lump, and that it was, indeed, breast cancer.

"It was like getting hit with an anvil," she recalled. Her twins, Rebecca and Jake, were only eight at the time, and her daughter Shelby was only four. She worried about her husband of seventeen years, Steve, as well.

Fortunately, her cancer was caught early. Still, she endured seven surgeries over a period of twelve months, finding herself on a roller-coaster of emotions.

When she went public, after being told she was now cancer-free, she was not prepared for the outpouring of love and support that she received.

"Everyone has someone close who has had breast cancer," she said.

Wasserman Schultz thought she knew a lot about breast cancer. Two of her great-aunts had died of the disease. She had passed a number of women's health bills, particularly breast cancer advocacy bills, while she served in the Florida legislature. Yet, she never knew that as an Ashkenazi Jewish woman she was five times more at risk than the general population for contracting breast cancer. In fact, she has the BRCA 2 mutant gene that is more prevalent in Ashkenazi women, and which, although not a guarantee of the development of breast cancer, is a fairly good predictor.

As soon as she reached the age of forty, Wasserman Schultz was diligent about having a mammogram annually; and she practiced self-exams each month as well, which is how she found the lump.

One of the Congresswoman’s crusades these days is to alert young women that they, too, can develop breast cancer. The statistics are frightening: 28,000 young women contract breast cancer each year, and 3000 of them die from the disease.

So, she is sponsoring a bill she wrote called the EARLY Act -- "catchy and cute," she says. Her bill would educate both health care providers and young women about the need for self exams and early detection. Too often physicians have dismissed young women who have found a suspicious lump telling them they are "too young" to worry about breast cancer.

But as Wasserman Schultz can attest, young women do need to worry about breast cancer and be aware of changes in their bodies.

The EARLY Act has garnered 371 cosponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives. All but four members of Pennsylvania's Congressional delegation (Representatives Glenn Thompson (R-5th), Joe Pitts (R-16th), Bud Schuster (R-9th) and Charlie Dent (R-15th)) have signed on to the bill. Wasserman Schultz urged the one thousand attendees at the PBCC conference to contact these members of Congress and urge them to cosponsor the EARLY Act.

She knows that lobbying works, because, as one of her legislative assistants told me, the York Jewish Federation marched on their Congressman and he consequently signed on to the bill.

Wasserman Schultz also spoke out strongly in favor of the House of Representatives' health care reform bill. She said that having 46 million Americans with no health insurance, plus another 29 million who are underinsured, is unforgivable for the richest country in the world. She pointed out that 700,000 Americans declare bankruptcy each year because of medical debt. And when compared to other countries around the world, America ranks number 31 in life expectancy.

She is optimistic that Congress will pass a health care reform bill this year, and said she admires Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) for voting for the Senate Finance Committee’s bill even though she was the sole Republican to do so. Following the PBCC conference, Wasserman Schultz spoke to the Jewish community in Harrisburg. Then it was back to work in Washington, DC.

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