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Breast Cancer Awareness And Screening Saves Lives -- At All Ages

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"Fear can literally kill you. It killed me." These were the words my close friend Kristen Martinez said to me two years ago, just days before she died of cancer.

In 2005, she was diagnosed with stage 4 metastasized breast cancer at 32 years old. She was underinsured and, like millions of other women, struggled to get the care that she needed.

Kristen knew she couldn't beat her diagnosis, but she was determined to educate other women about breast cancer and the importance of early diagnosis. She became a breast cancer advocate, talking to women across the country, urging them to speak up, take action, and take control of their health. Kristen died 5 years after she was diagnosed.

Today, her memory is the driving force behind my commitment to increase awareness about breast cancer, especially among young women and women of color.

At the time Kristen was diagnosed, we were both young and felt invincible. Getting sick just wasn't in the plans. But the reality is this: young women do get breast cancer. About 250,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with breast cancer each year; more than 11,000 of them are under age 40. While breast cancer is far from common among women under 40, younger women are more likely to be diagnosed with a more aggressive form of breast cancer, making them more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage and less likely to survive the disease.

And women of color are disproportionately affected by breast cancer. Black women under age 40 have a higher incidence of breast cancer than any other racial group, and we have the lowest survival rate. And breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among Latinas, who are often diagnosed at a later stage, when the cancer is more advanced and harder to treat.

Too many women don't get breast exams or follow up on abnormalities, usually because they can't afford it or they are afraid of what they'll learn. We have to make it easier for women of all ages to get the breast care they need.

In Kristen's name, I stood with Planned Parenthood this week to announce that the organization is expanding the services that already provide nearly 750,000 breast exams a year. Planned Parenthood will provide education and outreach to help women overcome fears about where to go, what to do, and what abnormalities may mean. The program will also increase access to screenings and specialized follow-up services, like ultrasounds and biopsies, to help more women get access to the care they need without worrying about cost.

Planned Parenthood is uniquely suited to do both, as a trusted health care provider for women, especially young women and low-income women. Fully 94 percent of the organization's patients are under the age of 40, so their doctors and nurses are in a prime position to help young women become more aware of breast health issues. That's great news for millions of women who face the difficult choice that Kristen faced: how to get the quality care they need and pay their bills.

And thanks to the Affordable Care Act's women's preventive care benefit, which started taking effect on August 1, women with new private insurance plans can be assured that their preventive care, like breast exams and mammograms, will be covered without expensive co-pays or deductibles.

Before Kristen died, I promised her that I would continue to speak up and take action to educate young women about breast cancer and early diagnosis. Planned Parenthood is making it easier for me to keep that promise. And I'm thankful for that, because for all the other Kristens out there, that knowledge could be the difference between life and death.

To schedule an appointment today or learn more about Planned Parenthood's expanded breast health program, visit www.plannedparenthood.org/breast-health.