SUN SENTINEL: First lady Jill Biden, visiting cancer survivorship summit in Broward, urges more

“We can’t afford to wait another minute for better care, for better treatments, for better cures,” Biden said, delivering the keynote speech at Cancer Survivorship Summit convened by U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz at Nova Southeastern University.

First lady Jill Biden said Monday that much progress has been made in detecting and treating cancer — but not enough.

“We can’t afford to wait another minute for better care, for better treatments, for better cures,” Biden said, delivering the keynote speech at Cancer Survivorship Summit convened by U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz at Nova Southeastern University.

Biden touted the cancer moonshot, an effort launched by President Joe Biden and the first lady in early 2022 to cut in half the number of cancer deaths over 25 years. Drawing on her own family’s experience, Biden emphasized challenges faced by people who have had cancer, their families and caregivers.

“Within crowds scattered throughout workplaces, grocery stores and parks, there’s a fellowship of people who’ve lost sons and daughters. To the uninitiated, we look normal, average, whole. But like a secret handshake, I can spot them by the sadness that rests at the corner of their smiles, by the curve of their shoulders, as if they can still feel the small arms of a child wrapping around their neck,” she said. “I meet them everywhere I go. And though we are strangers, we know untellable truths about one another that we will spend the rest of our lives longing to see a face that’s gone forever.”

About 500 people attended the first part of the daylong conference, though the audience thinned after the first lady’s speech. Medical experts, people with cancer and caregivers were in the audience and on panels. Two afternoon speakers were tennis star Martina Navratilova, who was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2022, and her wife, Julia Lemigova, one of the stars of the Bravo program “Real Housewives of Miami,” who described the course of treatment. “You do it out of love,” Lemigova said.

Biden touted administration efforts that would expand grants to pay for services to help people with cancer navigate their care options and grants to research teams throughout the country. Wasserman Schultz touted an administration move to prevent medical debt from negatively showing up on people’s credit reports. Wasserman Schultz authored the proposed Comprehensive Cancer Survivorship Act, which she said has bipartisan support. She said it is aimed at making sure that coverage is complete for people in the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis.

Biden echoed Wasserman Schultz’s explanation for the need to focus on cancer survivorship. “Cancer doesn’t stop stealing time when you’re declared cancer free. Side effects from treatment linger through remission. And so does the anxiety that begins long before every screening: Worry that you might hear that you have cancer again,” Biden said.

In 1993, when Biden was in her early 40s, four of her friends were diagnosed with breast cancer in one year. The president and first lady’s son, Beau Biden, died of glioblastoma, an aggressive brain tumor, in 2015. Biden was vice president at the time, and then-President Barack Obama asked him in 2016 to lead the cancer moonshot, aiming to accelerate progress in fighting cancer. Last year the Bidens relaunched the moonshot.

Wasserman Schultz had her first mammogram at age 40, and shortly after, in December 2007, noticed a lump in her breast. Over the next year, she had seven major surgeries, including removal of a malignant tumor, a double mastectomy, breast reconstruction and removal of her ovaries.

“Survivors face a diagnosis that already turns our world upside down. You’re consumed by frantic thoughts of mortality. So many medical and life questions flood your mind. All these thoughts and emotions collide. As you hear those three dreaded words — ‘you have cancer’ — that moment will dictate so much of the rest of your life. … A new order takes over. You wonder when your next appointment is, whether you took your medication, whether the medication you have is the right medication. Like so many you might worry how you will pay for either one,” Wasserman Schultz said. “Life is just different. I’ve been there. I’m still there.”

Wasserman said the early detection “saved my life,” and advised people to call their doctors if they feel anything unusual. “If I had waited, I don’t know what would have happened.”

She said she’s cancer free 16 years later, and one of her big concerns is the outlook for her two adult daughters. Wasserman Schultz said genetic counseling is essential, and urged people not to simply rely on home genetic test kits.

Her mother and both grandmothers died of lung cancer.

Wasserman Schultz, who said years ago she might sometimes have M&Ms for breakfast, has overhauled her diet. “In changing the way I ate, I transformed a lot of the way my family ate.”

A panelist at the conference, Ricki Fairley, CEO and co-founder of TOUCH, The Black Breast Cancer Alliance, said it’s critical to talk about prevention, detection and treatment of cancer. She said in many Black families, health isn’t discussed until it’s too late — an uncle has a leg amputated or an aunt is in hospice.

It wasn’t the first lady’s first visit to Broward to discuss the cancer moonshot and learn more about efforts to detect and treat cancer.

In October 2022, she was hosted by Wasserman Schultz for a two-hour visit to the University of Miami Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center branch in Plantation. During the tour, Biden met with two groups of physicians and patients, and had a briefing about the latest development in mammography.

Later Monday, Biden and Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough — who also spoke at the summit — were scheduled to visit Patrick Space Force Base in Brevard County, the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, and a Department of Defense program for students.