Politics & Government

Congresswoman kept her breast cancer a secret

WASHINGTON — When U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz steps to the lectern at the Capitol Monday to push for greater awareness of the risk of breast cancer in younger women, she'll be speaking from experience.

Wasserman Schultz, 42, a mother of three from Broward County, Fla., said Saturday that she successfully battled breast cancer for the past year — and is going public with her story in hopes of alerting young women to its prevalence. She'll introduce legislation Monday that calls for a national media and education campaign targeted to women between 15 and 39.

"I wanted to be able to not just stand up and say 'I'm a breast cancer survivor,' ... I wanted to find a gap and try to fill it,'' said Wasserman Schultz, who underwent seven major surgeries, including a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery while balancing motherhood, Congress and her roles as a chief fundraiser for House Democrats and popular political surrogate, first for Hillary Clinton and then, Barack Obama.

"I had a lot going on last year,'' she said with a laugh, sitting in the living room of the Capitol Hill townhouse she shares with two other members of Congress while she's in town. "I'm a very focused, methodical person and I wasn't going to let this beat me. I wasn't going to let it interfere with my life.''

She'll share her story on national television Monday morning, appearing on ABC-TV's Good Morning America with anchor Robin Roberts, who had breast cancer in 2007.

"What I realized through the year is, I thought I knew a lot about breast cancer, but I really didn't, and most young women don't,'' Wasserman Schultz said. Breast cancer in younger women can be particularly aggressive, but it can be more difficult to detect because of breast density. And physicians, Wasserman Schultz said, can be slow to recognize the threat to younger women.

"Young women go skipping along through their life, thinking they're invincible, not worrying about breast cancer because they think of it as an older woman's disease,'' Wasserman Schultz said, noting that much of the focus is on a woman's first mammogram, typically administered at age 40.

The death rate from breast cancer has declined for older women, but remains stable for younger women because they are often diagnosed at a later stage, she said.

"It just pains me to know that younger women, because they don't know and because they're blown off by physicians many times, and because they squeeze their eyes shut and hope that it's nothing, that their death rate is much higher,'' she said.

Her bill calls for a national education campaign, aimed at informing young women about the risks and encouraging them to conduct routine self exams. It also would give grants to organizations that help younger women with fertility counseling and body image.

Wasserman Schultz discovered a lump in her breast through a self exam, two months after her first mammogram at 40. Though the cancer was detected at an early stage, she also learned that as an Ashkenazi Jew, she was at a greater risk of having the cancer recur in healthy breast tissue, prompting her to have both breasts removed. She was also at increased risk of ovarian cancer and had her ovaries removed -- the day after election day. Her final surgery was in December -- almost a year to the date of her diagnosis.

Because the cancer was caught so early, she didn't have to go on chemotherapy or radiation but will have to take the cancer drug Tamoxifen for the next five years.

She said she decided to keep her cancer private, mostly concerned that her young children (then 8-year-old twins and a four-year-old daughter) would worry needlessly, particularly with a mother who was also constantly on the go. They knew she was undergoing surgery — but she didn't tell them the cause.

"I knew from my doctors that if I went through their recommended course of treatment that I would get through it and I'd be fine, that I could come out the other side and confidently tell my children, `Mommy's fine,''' she said. She planned to tell them Saturday night.

She scheduled her treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Naval Medical Center in nearby Bethesda, Maryland, during congressional recesses, so as not to miss votes in Congress.

And she says that keeping her illness to a small circle of family and friends allowed her to "maintain control'' over a situation that she couldn't control.

"I didn't want it to define me,'' she said. "I didn't want when you wrote a story about me, I would become `Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who is battling breast cancer,'' she said. "I didn't want that to be my name because I knew I was going to be fine.''