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Postpartum Cancer and The Breast & Cervical Cancer Prevention & Treatment Act, or, Two Reproductive Justice Things I Learned About By Simply Having A Conversation With My Sister

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January 29, 2013

My medical history is something I’ve always been vague on. Aside from a smattering of recessive traits and bad teeth, I don’t really know what disorders or diseases to which I may be genetically predisposed. As a woman, this has always concerned me, particularly as the gap between my 20s and 30s begins to close. Not only am I becoming more interested in having a family of my own, but it’s no secret that women become more susceptible to reproductive cancer and hormone fluctuations as we age.

My half-sister Christie is one of few relatives who offer clues to my medical history. A breast cancer survivor who underwent chemo, radiation, and a double mastectomy this summer, Christie has made a fairly speedy recovery – much to my relief.

Naturally, I wanted to know if breast cancer is something that runs in my family. This weekend, I asked her this very question.

“Don’t worry,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s not genetic.”

According to my sister’s small army of doctors, her breast cancer was not brought on by an inherited gene, but by giving birth later in life. Postpartum reproductive cancer in women over 35 is not something that we talk about with frequency. However, as a USA Today article from October explains, it is a critically important reproductive issue:

While breast cancer is not common in women so young, almost one-third of the 25,000 cases diagnosed in women under age 45 fall into the category of postpartum breast cancer, also called pregnancy-associated breast cancer, says Pepper Schedin, a professor at the University of Colorado in Denver. For reasons doctors don’t completely understand, a woman’s risk of breast cancer actually goes up in the five years or so after she has a child, Schedin says.

While still on the subject of breast cancer, Christie told me that, while president, Bill Clinton signed a bill into law that allows women to receive comprehensive breast reconstruction surgery at no cost to them. The government covers the entire cost. Before then, breast reconstruction was seen as a cosmetic procedure and women had to foot the cost of mediocre silicone implants themselves. This blew my mind; it almost seemed too good be true.

I got around to researching this bill today. As it turned out, my sister was completely right! Not only did The Breast and Cervical Cancer Prevention Treatment Act of 2000 offer women cost-free reconstructive surgery, but treatment and recovery options for other types of reproductive cancers, as well.

What’s more awesome and a bit perplexing is that George W. Bush, a president who was largely anti-choice during his two terms, amended the act two years later—not to restrict its conditions, but emphasize that Native American women were covered under the act and that medical professionals should not deny our nation’s first women treatment. Given that Congressional Republicans were largely responsible for the Violence Against Women Act’s (VAWA) recent expiration, this discovery could not be more timely.

Reproductive justice issues are non-partisan, and Bush’s willingness to implement a necessary change to an already-positive policy is testament to that. While I was speaking with my sister to learn about my genetic predisposition for cancer, I wound up learning so much more in the process. Connecting with the survivors of reproductive trauma within my family was of utmost importance. Not only is it a justifiably selfish preventable measure, but it also helps educates me on treatment procedures and legislation which are worth sharing with other RJ activists. What’s more, it helps me have compassion for survivors and everything which they’ve been through. As an activist, I spend so much so much time focusing on cold, hard facts and statistics that I sometimes forget to think about the deeply personal stories surrounding reproductive equality. With a family with a complex history of cancer among women, I’d venture to guess that this was why George W. Bush was so adamant on expanding policy benefitting women.

As the debate surrounding VAWA’s reinstatement continues, I’d like to encourage our Congressmen to take a closer look at the women in their lives, particularly those who are survivors. Who knows? Like me, they might just learn a thing or two.

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