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Educating Young Women about Breast Cancer

Breast 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.

Yes, you did read that last part correctly. Despite the perception, young women can and do get breast cancer and the result can be devastating.

In 2008, the American Cancer Society estimated that there would be 182,460 new cases of breast cancer in women. Of these cases, more than 10,000 – 11,000 of these women would be 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 young women under the age of 40.

Additionally, certain ethnic groups, including Ashkenazi Jews, and African American young women, have an increased risk of breast cancer.

Despite these facts, many young women mistakenly believe that breast cancer is only a problem for women over 40 years old. 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 introduced the Education and Awareness Requires Learning Young Act, or EARLY Act in March of 2009. I am happy to tell you that the bill passed as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in March 2010.

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. It 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 also provides grants to organizations that support young women diagnosed with breast cancer in order to receive the assistance they need-including social and psychological support, fertility preservation counseling, and recurrence prevention training.

The purpose of my legislation is not to alarm people, but to educate and empower young women so we can reduce the number 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.

As you may know, for twenty years as an elected official, I have been a staunch advocate for transforming our approach toward breast cancer, and worked toward its eradication.

However, this issue took on a greater significance in my life when I found a lump in my breast while doing a routine self-exam in 2008, and my doctor diagnosed me with breast cancer.

My doctor's initial recommendation, because I found the lump so early and it was less than a half centimeter, was to simply have the cancer removed, 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 that would show whether I had a genetic alteration in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene.

The test proved to be positive for the BRCA2 gene and I decided, based on this information, to have my breast tissue removed as well as my ovaries, to significantly reduce the chance of a recurrence of the cancer.

Seven surgeries later I am now cancer free and have a smaller chance of developing cancer than the average women. 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 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. We need to ensure that every young woman in America can rely on more than luck. Their survival depends on it.


Debbie Wasserman Shultz's Signature

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To read about the Congresswoman's press conference on Capitol Hill, click here.

To watch the Congresswoman discuss the EARLY Act, click here.

To read a personal note from the Congresswoman, click here.