Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, breast cancer survivor and advocate of cancer research and prevention, spoke with us about her dedication to the fight against cancer. Read her story to learn about the legislation and federal funding for cancer efforts that she has worked tirelessly to support, and how you can join us in making sure that cancer remains a national priority.
Congresswoman, you have a record of supporting federal funding to fight cancer. What is your connection to the disease, and why are you passionate about maintaining progress?
Six years ago when I was 41, just weeks after a clean mammogram, I experienced that horrible feeling far too many have felt—that moment when you find out you have breast cancer.
After seven surgeries and once I was cancer-free, I knew I had to use my own experiences with breast cancer to help other young women dealing with the pain and difficulty of diagnosis and treatment.
My teenage daughter has asked me if she will also get breast cancer someday. I know I can’t promise her that she won’t face the same cancer I did, especially because I carry a genetic mutation that dramatically increased my chances of getting breast or ovarian cancer. One thing that I can promise my daughters is that I will fight to make sure they grow up in a world that is determined to give them access to the best health care opportunities possible.
As long as I have the privilege of representing South Florida in the United States Congress, I will continue fighting for laws to support and protect the health of our families and our children.
We know that lives can be saved through cancer prevention, research and treatment. What are you doing to make sure this country remains committed to these activities?
As a direct result of my own experience, as soon as I was cancer free, I introduced the Breast Health Education and Awareness Requires Learning Young Act, or the EARLY Act. I wanted to make sure that young women facing the same kind of tough decisions that I did would have the support they need.
Along with 378 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and the tireless help of more than 40 advocacy organizations, including the LIVESTRONG Foundation, we were able to incorporate the EARLY Act into the Affordable Care Act that went into law in 2010.
The first part of this process is an advisory panel at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Comprised of breast cancer specialists, advocates and survivors, the panel is tasked with establishing the CDC’s outreach plan for educating young women about their risk. Most importantly, this panel includes leaders representing African American, Asian American, Native American and Jewish women—groups with disproportionate risks for breast cancer.
I am so pleased that the EARLY Act passed as part of the Affordable Care Act, which will also help ensure that everyone in this country—regardless of income level, race or gender—will have access to affordable, quality health care. Under the ACA, people will have access to preventive screenings at no cost, and they won’t have to worry about being dropped from their insurance coverage because they are a cancer survivor or are genetically predisposed to the disease.
I’m also pleased to report that legislation I introduced was included in the Defense Appropriations bill that passed in June of 2013. This legislation creates a new task force within the Department of Defense to study all advanced cancers, seeking common causes, treatments and cures for tumor growth in a collaborative effort to save lives.
We can learn so much from studying different types of cancer together, rather than in silos, as treatments are so frequently discovered to be effective for multiple forms of the disease. I proposed the creation of this research panel because I know that pursuing research on these commonalities will bring us much closer to ending cancer once and for all.
We also need to focus on survivorship issues. Patients in their 20s, 30s and 40s have a completely different experience than patients in their 50s, 60s or 70s, and it is vital that we recognize, honor and focus on those differences.
Sustained funding for cancer research and control programs is important to achieving lasting progress in reducing cancer incidence and mortality. Although Congress increased funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) during January’s budget negotiations, this did not fully restore the harmful cuts made during sequestration. Is there a better way to address the federal deficit rather than across the board reductions, and do you agree that not all cuts are the same?
Absolutely. In June I offered an amendment to replace indiscriminate sequester cuts with a targeted approach to reducing our nation’s deficit, while at the same time maintaining critical services and investments. As it stands, even with the moderate relief proposed in the current budget, there are still cuts in critical investments in health care, medical research and education.
Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States, and there are almost 14 million people who are either living with this disease or are survivors. We must ensure that our nation’s research institutions, including the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, can continue their critical research into understanding and eliminating cancer once and for all. We must uphold our responsibility and commitment to all Americans that the United States remains at the forefront of innovative research and development.
What can advocates do to ensure lawmakers make the fight against cancer a priority given that there are so many competing budgetary interests?
As advocates you all are on the front line, telling stories of how cancer doesn’t discriminate; how it affects everyone—men, women, the poor and the wealthy alike. And it doesn’t just affect the patient—it takes an immeasurable toll on our children, our spouses and our loved ones. Advocacy organizations like LIVESTRONG play a huge part in informing the public about the risks and impacts of cancer and mobilizing support from lawmakers. You all played a critical role in helping shape the EARLY Act, and you bring innovative thinking and programming to help educate people and advocate for their rights. We couldn’t do this work without you, and I know that we can count on you to keep fighting so that while we continue to search for a cure, each and every survivor know that they have a tireless advocate in LIVESTRONG.