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Guest Blog: An HBOC Week Message from Representative Wasserman Schultz

October 1, 2015

By Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz

Representative Wasserman Schultz meets with members of FORCE in 2010 for the first HBOC Week

Representative Wasserman Schultz meets with members of FORCE in 2010 for the first HBOC Week

I’m honored to have an opportunity to work with FORCE to promote awareness about Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer. FORCE plays a crucial role in the cancer awareness and advocacy community, particularly for those of us who have been personally affected by genetic cancers.

We share the fundamental belief that knowledge is power, and that we have a responsibility to educate and empower people with as much information as possible about the risk and reach of hereditary cancers.

We know that breast and ovarian cancer strikes women from all backgrounds, races, and ethnicities, but we also know that it can be a disproportionate threat to some groups, including Ashkenazi Jews like myself.

When, at 41, I heard the terrible words: “you have breast cancer” I was shocked. I thought to myself, “How could I have breast cancer at such a young age?” I didn’t think young women like me could get breast cancer. Moreover, at the time, I did not know that as an Ashkenazi Jew, I was five times more likely to have the BRCA 1 or BRCA2 gene mutation. I did not know that carriers of the BRCA gene mutations have up to an 85 percent lifetime chance of getting breast cancer and up to a 60 percent chance of getting ovarian cancer.

Thinking of my children and their future, I underwent seven surgeries including a double mastectomy. After I was declared cancer-free, I knew I had a responsibility to use my experience to educate others about their risks.

I was fortunate that I learned enough about my risks and got the help I needed, but I didn’t find my tumor through luck. I found it through knowledge and awareness.

In 2009, I wrote the Breast Health Education and Awareness Requires Learning Young Act, or “EARLY Act,” with the goal of empowering young women to make informed decisions about their health. I am pleased that the EARLY Act – with the help of advocacy organizations like FORCE – became law as part of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 and was reauthorized last year.

Earlier this year, after draft guidelines from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force put insurance coverage for mammograms for women under 50 at risk, I joined my Republican colleague Renee Ellmers to introduce the Protecting Access to Lifesaving Screening Act (PALS Act). This is legislation to ensure that women are able to receive coverage for mammograms when they need them.

The bottom line is that the best ways we have to combat this disease is by making sure individuals are aware of their risks and ensuring everyone has the tools they need to identify and confront those risks. Specifically when considering hereditary cancers, we need to make sure that people have information and access to genetic tests and screenings, as well as genetic counseling so they can understand which tests are appropriate. Insurance companies must also provide coverage for these screenings for those who need it.

On a personal level, we need to feel comfortable talking about these risks and our own bodies with our families. We need to fill out our family medical histories and talk with our doctors. As the mother of two daughters and a son, I worry about whether or not I have passed on my BRCA mutation.

But I know that through access to the information they need, they will be in the strongest position to make decisions about their health, regardless of what the future holds. By working together, we can save more of our loved ones. So please, talk to the important people in your life today and get the information you need to survive and thrive.

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