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Joining FORCES is the FORCE newsletter with news, views and supportive information for individuals concerned about hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.

Hereditary Cancer Info > FORCE Publications > Newsletter > Archives > Voices: Educating Young Women

Voices: Educating Young Women About Breast Cancer

by U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz

Representative WassermanBreast cancer is a disease that knows no boundaries. It strikes women from all backgrounds, races, and ethnicities, the rich and the poor, the old and the young.

In 2008, the American Cancer Society estimated 182,460 new invasive cases of breast cancer in women, with 10,000–11,000 cases occurring in women under 40 years of age. 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. In fact, breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in women younger than 40.

As you may know, for 17 years as an elected official, I have been a staunch advocate for transforming our approach towards breast cancer and have worked towards its eradication. However, this issue took on a greater significance in my life when I found a lump in my breast last year while doing a routine self-exam, and my doctor diagnosed breast cancer. Because I found the lump so early and it was less than a half centimeter, my doctor initially recommended removing the cancer with a lumpectomy followed by radiation. However, after sitting down with a nurse educator who asked me many, many questions about my personal and family health history, I also decided to have a blood test to see whether I had an inherited alteration in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.

The test was positive for a BRCA2 gene mutation. Based on this information, I decided to have my breast tissue and ovaries removed to significantly reduce my chance of a recurrence or a new diagnosis. Seven surgeries later I am cancer free and have a smaller chance of developing another cancer than the average woman.

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 it early because I knew that I should perform breast self-exams, and I was aware of what my body was supposed to feel like.

Despite these facts, many young women mistakenly believe that breast cancer is only a problem for women over 40. As a result, diagnoses are delayed and young women’s lives are cut short. We cannot afford to be silent about these specific risks and how they impact certain communities; not when our children’s lives are on the line.

To that end, I’ve introduced the Breast Cancer Education and Awareness Requires Learning Young Act, or the EARLY Act, HR 1740/S.994. This legislation directs the Centers for Disease Control to develop and implement a national education campaign about the threat breast cancer poses to young women of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and the particular heightened risks of certain groups.

The campaign will help educate young women and better enable health care professionals to identify the specific threats and warning signs of breast cancer, which will lead to early diagnoses and saved lives. The bill calls for $9 million a year from 2010 to 2014. The EARLY Act will also provide grants to organizations that support young women who have breast cancer, so they can receive the social and psychological support, fertility preservation counseling, and recurrence prevention training they need.

My legislation is not meant to alarm people; its goal is to educate and empower young women so we can reduce the number of fatalities from this horrific disease. Because at the end of the day, the old saying rings true: knowledge is power. By making sure young women know their risk factors, the EARLY Act is a first step in transforming how we approach the fight against breast cancer.

For over 15 years, Debbie Wasserman Schultz has dedicated her public life to working on behalf of the people of Southern Florida. On January 4, 2005, she was sworn in as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Florida’s 20th Congressional District. Wasserman Schultz arrived in Washington with a reputation as a force to be reckoned with, someone who works hard on behalf of children, education, healthcare, Social Security, Medicare and the security of every American.

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