WASHINGTON – When Sen. Amy Klobuchar received the news in February that she had breast cancer, she not only joined a small group of women in Congress who have had the disease but also became one of the thousands in the U.S. who are diagnosed each year.
Klobuchar, D-Minn., said getting her breast cancer diagnosis was a "shock." Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., described her diagnosis in 2007 as "devastating."
As Breast Cancer Awareness month comes to a close, both lawmakers are fighting in the halls of the Capitol for better preventive care and more advocacy for survivors.
Klobuchar announced Thursday that she is introducing the Preventive Care Awareness Act, legislation she started crafting after her diagnosis, she told USA TODAY.
The legislation would aim to help people get appointments needed to detect cancer early by promoting health care screenings and routine examinations and physicals.
"The numbers are much bigger than people think," Klobuchar said. "Now I'm one of them. And I never thought that would happen."
Klobuchar, 61, revealed in September that she was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer and that doctors diagnosed her with stage 1A cancer after a biopsy in the spring. The diagnosis came after a routine mammogram she had delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
After other tests, she was treated at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and had a lumpectomy to remove a tumor in her right breast. In May, she began radiation therapy.
The senator's revelation put a national spotlight on the disease the American Cancer Society says results in more than 200,000 diagnoses each year in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, breast cancer is the second most-common cancer among women behind skin cancer.
Wasserman Schultz, 55, kept her diagnosis private for more than a year after learning she had breast cancer nearly 14 years ago. She did so to protect her three children at the time.
She had a double mastectomy and continued to work as a lawmaker during treatment, scheduling surgeries during weeks the House was in recess.
Klobuchar noted many Americans missed doctors appointments in the past year and a half amid the coronavirus pandemic, and some delayed appointments out of fear of contracting COVID-19 at hospitals or doctors' offices. Klobuchar put off her own cancer screening for about a year.
"We know there's tons of people (who have had) undetected breast cancer and other forms of cancer," Klobuchar said. "I put mine off from the beginning of the pandemic."
At the beginning of the pandemic, cancer screenings were not considered “essential” medical services – instead, they were classified as “elective” procedures, leading patients and medical professionals to deprioritize them.
"The sooner you know these things, and stop playing games in your mind and get the screening done, the better you're going to feel and certainly the better off your health is going to be," Klobuchar said.
It was her personal experience that inspired her to create the legislation, which would establish a task force to develop recommendations addressing preventive care access during COVID-19 and future public health emergencies.
It also would direct the Health and Human Services secretary to create a public health education campaign aimed at informing people about access to preventive services in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the surgeon general and the administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
In addition, it awards grants to states, territories, localities, and tribal organizations to increase use and decrease disparities in preventive care services.
Wasserman Schultz agreed prevention is crucial to combating the disease while scientists search for a cure.
"We have to make sure that we focus on prevention" and early detection, she told USA TODAY on Wednesday, surrounded by pink breast cancer awareness memorabilia in her office. Funding preventive measures can bring down mortality rates, she said.
Preventive care measures for breast cancer include scheduling regular mammograms and physicals. Klobuchar said a key part of the education campaign would to be inform the public that most of those services are free.
Wasserman Schultz also emphasized the need to educate people on how to do self-exams.
After her first mammogram, which came back clean, she became more "aware of paying attention to my breast health. So, I was doing a self-exam in the shower, found a lump, something that did not feel like what I normally felt."
Though survival rates vary for different cancers, generally, the later cancer is diagnosed, the more difficult it is to treat.
The U.S. National Cancer Institute, a government agency that conducts cancer research, published an academic article in early September 2020 that said it "conservatively estimates 10,000 excess deaths over the next decade from underdiagnosed and undertreated breast and colorectal cancers during COVID-19."
Klobuchar's bill, which hasn't been introduced in the House yet, is already getting bipartisan support in the upper chamber.
Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Mike Rounds and John Thune of South Dakota have joined Klobuchar and Democratic Sens. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Jacky Rosen of Nevada in sponsoring the legislation.
Rounds' wife, Jean, also is battling cancer.
“My family has seen the importance of preventive health care firsthand as my wife, Jean, has been battling cancer since 2019," Rounds said in a statement. "Unfortunately, thousands of American families share my family’s story and witness how a scheduled check-up can turn into lifesaving early detection of a horrific disease.
Klobuchar and Wasserman Schultz have teamed up on similar breast cancer legislation and awareness before, helping lead the charge to reauthorize pass the Breast Health Education and Awareness Requires Learning Young Act, or the EARLY Act, to be reauthorized last year. It was done so as part of the larger government spending and COVID-19 relief legislation.
That legislation, written by Wasserman Schultz in 2010, created an outreach program administered by the CDC to highlight the disease in younger women and those who may be at higher risk because of their ethnicities.
Wasserman Schultz said that because of her Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, she was much more likely to carry a BRCA gene mutation. Because of the gene, she was also more likely to have ovarian cancer. She had her ovaries removed during her breast cancer treatment.
"Making sure that young women knew their risk was an important part of this legislation," she said.
What happens after the diagnosis and battle? Though it has been nearly 14 years since Wasserman Schultz's diagnosis and treatment, she stressed that the "survivor journey is for your lifetime. And there are so many pits and falls that you can trip up on."
She told USA TODAY she plans to unveil House legislation this year to "help people navigate their post-cancer experience," focusing on helping survivors navigate doctors visits.
For Klobuchar, her diagnoses shined a spotlight on the disease.
"It's a whole new ballgame when it happens to you personally."
Contributing: Matthew Brown, Gabriela Miranda and Jasper Colt USA TODAY; Jim Rosica, the Tallahassee Democrat; and Drew Favakeh and Meena Venkataramanan, the Arizona Republic
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Amy Klobuchar's breast cancer fight inspires preventive care bill