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.
In the past year, she underwent seven major surgeries, including a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, while balancing motherhood, Congress and her roles as a chief fundraiser for House Democrats and a political surrogate, first for Hillary Clinton and then for Barack Obama.
''I had a lot going on last year,'' she said with a laugh, sitting in the living room of the Capitol Hill town house she shares with two other members of Congress when she's in Washington. ``I'm a very focused, methodical person, and I wasn't going to let this beat me. I wasn't going to let it interfere with my life.''
''It just pains me to know that younger women, because they don't know and because they're blown off by physicians many times, and because they squeeze their eyes shut and hope that it's nothing, that their death rate is much higher,'' she said.
Her bill calls for a national education campaign, aimed at informing young women about the risks and encouraging them to conduct routine self-exams.
Wasserman Schultz discovered a breast lump through a self-exam, two months after her first mammogram at 40. Although the cancer was detected at an early stage, she also learned that as an Ashkenazi Jew of Eastern European descent, she was at greater risk of carrying a gene mutation that makes Ashkenazi Jews predisposed to breast cancer and recurrance. She tested positive for this BRCA2 gene mutation, prompting her to have both breasts removed.
She was also at higher risk of ovarian cancer and had her ovaries removed -- the day after Election Day. Her final surgery was in December, almost a year after her diagnosis.
Because the cancer was caught so early, she didn't need chemotherapy or radiation but will take the cancer drug tamoxifen for five years.
She said she decided to keep her cancer private, concerned mostly that her young children (then 8-year-old twins and a 4-year-old daughter) would worry, particularly with a mother who was also constantly on the go. They knew she was undergoing surgery, but she didn't tell them the cause.
'I knew from my doctors that if I went through their recommended course of treatment that I would get through it and I'd be fine, that I could come out the other side and confidently tell my children, `Mommy's fine,' '' she said. She planned to tell them Saturday night.
She scheduled her treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., during congressional recesses so she wouldn't miss votes in Congress.