I was relieved when at age 41, my first-ever mammogram came back clean. However, the report did indicate I was at risk for calcification buildups. Though not abnormal, that alert made me more vigilant about breast health self-awareness.
Indeed just six weeks later I found a lump in my breast during a routine self-exam, and shortly thereafter I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Are mammograms perfect? No. Evidence-based studies show both their benefits and their limits. But I strongly believe they are a critical component of overall breast healthcare.
Last month the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force issued draft recommendations that in essence say mammograms have no health benefit to women in their 40s. Not only is that inaccurate for many women, but such a statement can have serious consequences.
▪ First, it signals to women that they don’t need to worry about their breast health until their 50s. However, each year 26,275 women under age 45 are diagnosed with breast cancer. That’s one in six women fighting the disease. For them, ignoring their breast health could lead to later-stage diagnoses, which in turn could lead to costly, time-consuming treatment and possibly even death.
▪ Second, the task force’s draft recommendations will likely cause insurance companies to drop or limit mammography coverage for women under 50. I believe access to affordable, quality healthcare is a right of everyone, and limiting coverage is simply unacceptable. It is why Sen. Barbara Mikulski included language in the Affordable Care Act to ensure mammography coverage for women in their 40s without a co-pay, but USPSTF’s recommendations could undo this protection.
There are a number of reasons why getting women to holistically focus on their breast health remains a challenge. Some of it is financial, some of it is stigma-related and some of it is because we think of ourselves as invincible — goodness knows, I once did.
Downgrading the importance of mammograms while jeopardizing insurance coverage frankly sends the wrong message to women about their breast health.
Millions of women stand to be affected by a limit on preventive screening coverage, particularly those in minority communities who are often hardest hit by the disease. I’m one of those women — my Ashkenazi Jewish heritage dramatically increased my breast cancer risk. And young African-American women tend to get more aggressive breast cancers compared to other populations. The point is, women in their 40s from all walks of life get breast cancer every day, and they should have every tool available to fight.
Medical experts, women’s and patient’s advocates and my fellow lawmakers have rallied together as we did six years ago to once again urge the Task Force to change course. It’s not too late, and until May 18 the public can also comment on this proposed change to mammography screenings and coverage in America.
Prevention, screenings, research, treatment, advocacy — each is a critical component in the overall effort to combat this terrible disease. Since mammography was introduced in the 1980s there has been a 35-percent reduction in breast cancer mortality. Mammography is not a panacea, but such life-affirming results are no coincidence, either.
The co-author of the study that helped the Task Force reach their recommendations was quoted as saying, “Mammography does have some benefit in the likelihood of dying from breast cancer, but these benefits are relatively modest. Particularly for women who are at very low risk of breast cancer — the benefits are quite small.”
When talking about young women and breast cancer, it is words like “modest” and “small” that leave me troubled. As a survivor, as a mother and as a policymaker, I will continue to do everything in my power to secure comprehensive breast healthcare for all women — including the supposedly statistically insignificant, because every life matters. Yet, the USPSTF recommendation suggests they believe otherwise.
Seven surgeries and more than seven years later, I remain cancer free, and today I’m in my happy place — looking forward to spending Mother’s Day at home in South Florida with my kids, husband and my own mom and dad. I want more daughters and sons to be able to spend future Mother’s Days with their moms, and continuing to fight breast cancer on all fronts is one way of ensuring that for so many people.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz represents parts of Miami-Dade and Broward counties in the U.S. Congress.