Wasserman Schultz Discusses Cancer

Posted March 23, 2009 at 6:10pm

With Capitol Hill reeling from the news that she spent the past year secretly undergoing extensive treatment for breast cancer, an at-times emotional Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz unveiled legislation on Monday designed to better educate women under 40 about the disease.

With colleagues Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.) at her side, the Florida Democrat rolled out the Education and Awareness Requires Learning Young Act at an afternoon press conference, fighting back tears as she announced she was doing so with “a clean bill of health and cancer-free.—

“I really want to stress that this is not about me,— Wasserman Schultz said. “I’m not superwoman. This is just one woman’s struggle.—

Co-sponsored by Reps. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Del. Donna Christian-Christensen (D-Virgin Islands), the measure would create a broad education and outreach campaign targeted at women ages 15 to 39.

Of the 182,000 new breast cancer cases each year, more than 10,000 involve women under 40. That age group, however, suffers a higher mortality rate because young women’s cancers are generally more aggressive and often are diagnosed too late for treatment, according to the American Cancer Society.

Doing a better job of educating young women — and their doctors — about the dangers of the disease will help more women survive, Wasserman Schultz said.

“I didn’t find my tumor early because of luck. I found my tumor early because of knowledge and awareness,— Wasserman Schultz said.

She was joined by a slew of fellow cancer advocates and survivors. And she even got support from an audience member — Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) — who cheered her on during a particularly emotional moment.

“You’re all right,— he shouted. “Keep going.—

Wasserman Schultz said she had received an outpouring of support from constituents and other supporters. But aside from the colleagues who attended the press conference, she had not yet spoken with many Members on Capitol Hill, she said.

That left her a bit nervous to get Members’ reactions, she said, although she did speak with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton shortly before the press conference.

Wasserman Schultz was a top supporter of Clinton during her presidential campaign, and they continue to maintain a friendship.

“Part of the reason that I wanted to be private is that I’m the type of person, give me the instructions and tell me what to do … and she’s the same way,— Wasserman Schultz said.

Wasserman Schultz wanted to introduce some sort of legislation to help others with the disease shortly after her diagnosis, she said. She spent months meeting with cancer experts and advocates in order to draft a meaningful measure, she added.

“I didn’t want to file, me, too’ legislation,— she said. “I didn’t want to file a bill just because I had breast cancer.—

The fact that Wasserman Schultz managed to keep her struggle a secret for more than a year is somewhat surprising, especially considering she’s a rising star in the Democratic Party.

Already a top campaign fundraiser, a Deputy Whip and the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, Wasserman Schultz also spent much of 2008 on the presidential campaign trail, first for Clinton and later for Barack Obama.

But news of Wasserman Schultz’s cancer came only two days ago, when she revealed in a weekend interview with the Miami Herald and South Florida Sun Sentinel that she spent the past year undergoing treatment.

Wasserman Schultz caught the tumor, which measured a half-centimeter, in its early stages. Doctors initially advised she have it removed and undergo chemotherapy.

But as an Ashkenazi Jew of Eastern European descent, Wasserman Schultz knew she could carry a gene placing her at a higher risk for a reoccurrence of breast cancer or development of ovarian cancer. And after finding out she carried that gene, Wasserman Schultz underwent seven surgeries, including a double mastectomy, reconstruction of her breasts and removal of her ovaries.

Everything was done over Congressional recesses — Wasserman Schultz didn’t miss a day of work on Capitol Hill.

And aside from Bean (with whom she shares a Capitol Hill row house) and fellow Floridian Rep. Ron Klein (D), Wasserman Schultz didn’t tell her fellow Members about her cancer struggle.

“That is courage,— Klobuchar said, later adding: “I can’t even begin to say how proud I am of Debbie.—

Bean began to cry immediately after reaching the podium, calling Wasserman Schultz “one of the hardest-working [Members] on the Hill.—

“She’s always my hero, and I know she’s going to inspire so many others,— she said, and then hugged Wasserman Schultz.

Other Members offered similar praise.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Wasserman Schultz “embodies the courage demonstrated by the hundreds of thousands of American women who are diagnosed [with] breast cancer every year.—

“Her story is one of unbelievable strength and underscores the need for information and support,— Pelosi said. “Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz is using the power of her own experience to educate the nation.—

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), who works closely with Wasserman Schultz as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, echoed Pelosi.

“Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz has faced her health crisis with incredible grace and strength,— he said in a statement. “As she waged her private battle with cancer, she did not miss a single day of work and campaigned tirelessly for President Obama, our Frontliners and all of our candidates. … Her courage is an example for all of us.—