In 2011, two weeks shy of my 40th birthday, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Having the luxury of health insurance, I saw my internist after feeling a large lump on my left breast. He referred me to a breast surgeon at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles where an ultrasound showed that the lump was a large, angular and concerning mass.
From there, my path from diagnosis to treatment moved rapidly. The surgeon conducted a biopsy and scheduled me for a mammogram that same day. Two days later I got the results -- Stage 2 invasive breast cancer that had spread to my lymph nodes.
The diagnosis threw me for a loop, but with a long political campaign background, fighting is in my DNA, and I immediately slipped into full campaign mode in an effort to beat it. Five and half months of aggressive chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, reconstruction and 20 radiation sessions later, I'm close to doing just that.
My doctors and multiple breast cancer patients I met over the past eight months assured me that my diagnosis was "not a death sentence." For me, they are right. I am very lucky. I am lucky that I caught my cancer before it had metastasized to other parts of my body and before it became untreatable. I am lucky I have health insurance and was able to quickly seek a diagnosis and start treatment immediately. And, I am lucky that I live in a large metropolitan area with access to any number of world-class hospitals and doctors.
Unfortunately, far too many women in this country diagnosed with breast cancer are not so lucky. They are low-income, uninsured, out of work, or living in rural areas lacking access to many health care options. By the time many of these women get diagnosed and seek treatment, they are getting a death sentence. A 2011 report (PDF) by the American Cancer Society found that the death rate from breast cancer is higher in poor counties and that low-income women are at a greater risk of dying from breast cancer due to lack of access to breast screenings and advanced treatments. These are deaths that could be avoided with proper screening and diagnosis.
Advances in the diagnosis of breast cancer through ultrasound, mammography and breast MRI have helped reduce mortality rates by 25 percent, according to the American Cancer Society. But not for the poor. Lack of insurance, long waits for biopsies and sometimes months-long delays in seeking treatment leave many women in low-income and underserved areas unable to benefit from such advances.
The American Cancer Society found that in 2008 less than 50 percent of low-income women at least 40 years old had a mammogram to screen for breast cancer while close to 71 percent of women in the same age group not classified as low-income had mammograms.
This sad fact is what made the recent move by Susan G. Komen for the Cure to defund breast cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood such an outrage to me. For some women in rural America (where I am originally from) a Planned Parenthood clinic is the only place to which they can turn for basic breast health education, breast exams and referrals for treatment.
Before announcing a reversal, Komen trotted out several half-baked defenses of their decision, including saying they no longer would fund programs that do not have mammography machines. But aren't those exactly the types of centers that need funding the most -- places in rural America and underserved areas that are desperately in need of screening precisely because access to mammograms is lacking?
The unavoidable reality is that Komen folded like a tent to political pressure from the right, and from an anti-Planned Parenthood activist within their own ranks. It is also appears that Komen VP for Public Policy Karen Handel chose to use her leadership position with the organization to pursue an agenda that would bolster her own future political ambitions instead of focusing on the organization's mission -- saving lives.
As I wrote this piece, I saw a television advertisement for Komen's 3-Day -- a sea of survivors in pink walking for breast cancer awareness. I thought about women not as fortunate as me or as some of the women in the ad -- women that will never be able to celebrate victory over this disease.
It made me sad to see politics seep into Komen, threatening to turn its ubiquitous pink ribbon red, and sending yet another Mitt Romney-esque message to poor people in this country that we are just not concerned with them.
I will have to live with cancer for the rest of my life. But I do get to live. And I will fight to make sure more women are lucky like me. That will start with making sure every woman in America has access to early breast health education and screenings.