Legislator shares breast cancer story

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., shared a personal story of her battle with breast cancer at a panel and discussion organized by GW Hillel Wednesday night.

Accompanied by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Dr. Paul Levine, of GW’s School of Public Health and Health Services, Wasserman Schultz elaborated on the impact of breast cancer and the need for earlier detection.

The discussion, titled “Lifestyle, Genetics and Age: What Every Young Woman Should Know About Breast Cancer,” aimed to educate young women – in this case, women under 40 – about potential risk factors and the growing prevalence of the disease.

“So often the focus is on women over 40 years old,” Wasserman Schultz said. “Young women think they’re invincible, and then they don’t know enough about their health, especially their breast health.”

Wasserman Schultz was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2007, and has since undergone seven major surgeries, including a double mastectomy and the removal of her ovaries.

In the discussion, she talked about her feelings of fear and anxiety during the process.

“Being faced with your own mortality is not something you expect to deal with when you’re 41,” she said.

Wasserman Schultz was quick to address her gratefulness for early detection.

“If I had waited another six months, who knows what would have happened?” she said. “I probably would’ve been in a much more serious position with chemo and radiation.”

Early detection is a large part of Wasserman Schultz’s EARLY Act – a piece of legislation that seeks $9 million annually to provide breast cancer education for both young women and health care providers.

If implemented, the EARLY Act would promote increased awareness of risk factors and the use of predictive tools such as genetic testing to help prevent breast cancer in young women.

Wasserman Schultz, who is of Jewish descent, explained how some ethnic minorities, including African-American and Jewish women, are at higher genetic risk for developing breast cancer.

“Too many women don’t know enough about their risk,” she said. “To me, there was a gap in women’s education.”

Her EARLY Act aspires to change that. There are currently 373 representative signatures on the bill, though both Wasserman Schultz and Klobuchar addressed the issue of gaining more momentum in the Senate.

“It’s been a fight,” Klobuchar, a lead sponsor on the bill, said. “I won’t go into the gory details, but I’m always up for a fight.”

In addition to relatively strong support in both the House and Senate, the EARLY Act also made sense to students at the discussion.

Alexis Isenberg, a sophomore who attended the discussion, said, “I think it will get more girls and, I guess, guys to look for more information about their family histories and get tested.”

Rebecca Federan, a freshman, agreed. “I’m an Ashkenazi Jew and there’s a chance my mother has the bracket gene,” she said. “I feel like this is really important and relevant for a lot of people.”

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