Battling breast cancer on Capitol Hill
Until this week, I knew of Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla) as a fellow Jewess with Attitude who had campaigned tirelessly for the creation of Jewish American Heritage Month and effectively raised funds for the Democratic Party. Now I know that she is also part of a sisterhood of Jewish breast cancer survivors and activists.
Wasserman Schultz recently revealed that, in the past year, she discovered a tumor in her breast, had the tumor removed, learned she carried the BRCA genetic mutation, and underwent double mastectomy, breast reconstruction, and prophylactic oopherectomy. All this in addition to her work as a Congresswoman and a mother of three!
But the takeaway message of Wasserman Schultz's story is not that she is a superwoman (though she obviously is). The lessons she teaches are that:
1. We do what we need to do to get through the hard times. In her case, she needed to keep her illness quiet so she could be effective in her work. Others may need to go public. Some people fight to be as informed as they can be. Others would rather not know their prognosis. There's no one right way to cope with disease.
2. Breast self-exam is an important public health strategy. Wasserman Schultz found the lump in her breast while doing a self-exam in the shower. The mammogram she had two months earlier did not catch the tumor.
3. One of the most powerful tools we have to protect ourselves is knowledge about our bodies -- knowledge of what a healthy body feels like, what we can do to stay healthy, and what to do if we think we have a problem. (Thank you, feminist health activists, for making this clear.) As Wasserman Schultz put it so eloquently in her own press release: "Some people might say I was lucky. While I certainly was fortunate enough to have access to good health care, I didn't find my tumor early because of luck. I found my tumor early because of knowledge and awareness. I knew that I should perform breast self-exams, and I was aware of what my body was supposed to feel like."
4. We have a responsibility to use our knowledge, our power, and our experience to make the world a better place. With breast cancer behind her, Wasserman Schultz is now bringing her influence as a legislator to bear on the problem of early detection, proposing the EARLY (Education and Awareness Requires Learning Young) Act to teach young women and medical professionals about breast cancer risk factors, warning signs, and genetic testing. Because of the current emphasis on age 40 as the starting point for mammograms, younger women often think they have no risk of breast cancer, their doctors may ignore warning signs, and their insurance companies may refuse to pay for screening. The EARLY Act gives particular attention to ethnic groups, such as Jewish women and African-Americans, who have higher genetic risk of breast cancer.
"I didn't want it to define me," explains Wasserman Schultz as to why she kept her cancer a secret. I hope she'll allow herself to be defined by the astounding courage, fortitude, and commitment to helping others that her story reveals.