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It was shortly after my 41st birthday, and only 6 months after a clean mammogram, that I felt a lump while doing a routine self-exam in the shower. I was familiar enough with my body to know that something felt wrong, and sure enough, my doctor confirmed it with those devastating words – I had breast cancer.

In spite of the fact that I took all the steps I could to prevent the likelihood of a recurrence, every morning when I get dressed and see my scars, I think about my cancer. It’s always there. Surviving is part of who I am now.

This year, as the Congressional Women’s Softball Game celebrates its fifth year, I’m proud to be celebrating a five-year milestone of my own – five years cancer-free.

Reflecting on these last few years, I can tell you that getting the all clear from your doctor is just the beginning. I joined the sisterhood of thousands of young breast cancer survivors who face a whole host of challenges that are uniquely different from what the cohort of older breast cancer survivors confront – from fertility preservation, to early onset menopause, to body image issues to even dating as a survivor. Though I was fortunate to already have a wonderful husband and three beautiful children, many young women are not so lucky, and the already-terrifying diagnosis of breast cancer can threaten the dreams they’ve imagined for their future.

That’s why once I was cancer-free, I set out to do two things – pass legislation to empower young women affected by breast cancer and lend my support to organizations dedicated to making a meaningful difference in the lives of young women facing breast cancer, before, during, and sometimes most importantly, after their diagnosis.

Step One: Legislation

In 2009, I introduced the Education and Awareness Requires Learning Young Act, or the EARLY Act, a piece of legislation that helps empower young women to understand their bodies and speak up for their health. The EARLY Act creates an education and outreach campaign that highlights the breast cancer risks facing young women 45 and under, and empowers them with the tools they need to fight this deadly disease. It is designed to also help educate and sensitize health care providers about the specific threats and warning signs of breast cancer in younger women that lead to early detection, diagnosis, and survival.

Too often, providers aren’t prepared to deal with the unique challenges that young women face. Too frequently these women are turned away after being told they are “too young for breast cancer,” but I’m living proof that young women CAN and DO get breast cancer.

I am so proud that the EARLY Act was passed into law as part of the comprehensive Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010.

Step Two:  Supporting breast cancer organizations

With the EARLY Act signed into law, I wanted to reach out to my colleagues on the Hill to find ways we could work together to help support organizations dedicated to helping breast cancer survivors. Former U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO) and I had been talking for a while about putting together a group of women from both sides of the aisle to play softball and the timing couldn’t have worked out better.  In 2009, we joined forces with the Young Survival Coalition and started the first Congressional Women’s Softball Game.  Since 2010, we play our annual rivals, the female Capitol press corps, also known as the Bad News Babes.

When my colleagues and I take to the field, you can’t tell who is from a red state or a blue state.  Policy and political disagreements are put aside, and we play our hearts out on the field for one reason – to join young women in the fight against breast cancer! I am honored to call this group of dedicated women my colleagues and friends.

As I take time to reflect on the last five years as a cancer survivor, I am more determined than ever to work on legislative solutions to help fill some of the voids in raising awareness and cancer treatment. For example, more young women are getting breast cancer, and metastasis rates are not going down.  Women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s have a completely different experience than women in their 50s, 60s, or 70s, and it is vital that we recognize and focus on ways to best address those differences. We must help preserve fertility that is often jeopardized as a result of cancer treatment, and do whatever we can to help women cope with the challenges that arise during a lifetime of survival.

I am so grateful to everyone who plays, organizes, and attends the Congressional Women’s Softball Game. Through your involvement, you are honoring the battle young women face with breast cancer and giving them the support – financial and emotional – to live the lives they envisioned before hearing the words no one ever wants to hear.

Events like the Congressional Women’s Softball Game make it possible for the Young Survival Coalition and other organizations to actively reach out to young women, giving them the tools they need to be their own best health care advocate.  As a member of the survivor’s club, thank you for your dedication and support, it means the world to all of us.

Editor's Note: Want to learn more about the Congressional Women's Softball Game? Check out www.congwomensoftball.com.


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