Debbie Wasserman Schultz

EARLY Act Press Conference - Feb. 16, 2010

Debbie Wasserman Schultz
February 16, 2010— Washington, D.C.
EARLY Act Press Conference
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We are here today to announce the introduction of the Early Act: The Breast Cancer Education and Awareness Requires Learning Young Act of 2009. The Early Act is designed to empower young women to learn the facts, know their bodies, speak up for their health, and embrace support. Despite the perception, young women can and do get breast cancer.

More than 10,000 women under 40 are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in the United States. Although the incidence of breast cancer in young women is much lower than that of older women, young women’s breast cancers are generally more aggressive, are diagnosed at a later stage, and result in lower survival rates. Additionally, certain ethic groups including Ashkenazi Jews and African-American young women have an increased risk of breast cancer.

I became acutely aware of all of this information and more a little over a year ago. After finding a lump in my breast while doing a routine breast self-exam, I learned a few weeks later from my doctor that I had breast cancer. Upon learning of my diagnosis, and after genetic counseling, I also decided to have a blood test that would show whether I had a genetic mutation in the BRCA-1 or the BRCA-2 gene. As a women of Ashkenazi Jewish decent, I was in the category of at-risk populations for these gene mutations.

The test results showed that I did, indeed, carry the BRCA-2 genetic marker that suggests a greater susceptibility to breast and ovarian cancers. After careful consideration and further consultation with my doctors and my husband, I decided to have a double mastectomy and have my ovaries removed to reduce the likelihood of a recurrence of cancer. Today with a clean bill of health, I am cancer-free.

I plan to introduce the Early Act. The Early Act encourages young women to be familiar with the look and feel of their breasts. By knowing what feels normal, a young woman has a better chance of knowing when something feels different. The Early Act will also work to education young women about changes in their body that could be warning signs of breast cancer. We want them to know that it doesn’t only start with a lump. It can be swelling, a rash, breast pain, nipple pain, redness, or even scaliness, too. The Early Act will encourage young women to be their own voice, to speak up for themselves, and know when they need to go to their doctor.

The Early Act will teach both young women and medical professionals alike about risk factors, warning signs of breast cancer, and predictive tools such as genetic testing that can help women make informed decisions about their health. It will also provide grants to organizations dedicated to supporting young women and the unique issues that we face when diagnosed with breast cancer as well as managing and understanding the risk.

Today we often fail to teach about risk in this country. As a result, many of us face serious consequences in our lives. We need to change the educational dialogue and empower not only young women but everyone to take control of the risks they face. That begins with education and awareness.

I thought I knew all of my personal risk factors when it came to breast cancer. Because of those risk factors, I performed breast self-exams, I went to my doctor regularly, and I have been a longtime legislative advocate in the fight against breast cancer. But when I was diagnosed, I found out that I had more risk factors than I was aware of. For example, I had absolutely no idea that as an Ashkenazi Jewish woman I was five times more likely than the general population to have an altered BRCA-1 or BRCA-2 gene or what the risks of carrying that gene meant.

This bill will give all young women the tools they need to take control of their risks by teaching awareness of their personal risk and what they can do to manage those risks. At the end of the day, the old saying rings true, knowledge is power. By making sure that young women know their risk factors, the Early Act is a first step in transforming how we approach the fight against breast cancer.

In hearing my story, some people might say that I was lucky. While I was certainly fortunate enough to have access to good health care which far too few women do in this country, 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. It is my hope that by sharing my story we will pass the Breast Cancer Education and Awareness Requires Learning Young Act of 2009 into law this year, I’m sorry, and further reduce the death rate of young women diagnosed with breast cancer. We need to ensure that every young woman in America can rely on more than luck because their survival depends on it.

I cannot end my remarks today without thanking my wonderful husband, my family, my friends, doctors, nurses, and staff who have supported me throughout this journey. I’m so sorry. Their kindness and strength carried me through as they are doing right now. To my constituents and supporters, my wonderful constituents and supporters, who have just inundated me since this story was told this weekend with support and love, I just can’t thank you enough for your warmth and support. I look forward to working on your behalf for hopefully many years to come. Together we will pass this critical legislation. I just can’t thank everyone enough.