Sunday, May 27, 2018
Opinion

Blumner: Politics and my double mastectomy

During the same week that Angelina Jolie announced that she had a preventive double mastectomy as a precaution against her genetic predisposition toward breast cancer, House Republicans voted for the 37th time to repeal or replace Obamacare.

These two events have more in common than you think.

That's because, for everyone except the mega-wealthy like a Hollywood star, having Jolie-like health care options depends on good, affordable health insurance. And having access to that kind of coverage depends on reasonable and caring leaders in Washington — something the Republican caucus is missing, as proved by the aforementioned vote.

Jolie is rightly being applauded for her rational approach to protecting her health and willingness to write thoughtfully about her aggressive surgery. Jolie's odds of getting breast cancer were put at 87 percent due to the rare BRCA1 gene mutation she carries. Her mother died of cancer at 59 years old.

Jolie's revelation set off a nationwide debate over the appropriateness of prophylactic breast removal for women, especially for those without genetic or other risk factors. There has been a huge uptick in the number of women deciding to remove both breasts even when small, noninvasive breast cancers can be removed through a lumpectomy and accompanying radiation treatment.

Count me in this statistic. In August 2011, a small cancer (technically "stage zero" DCIS) was found in my left breast. Like Jolie, I had a preventive double mastectomy with reconstruction. Unlike Jolie, no one in my family had suffered from cancer and there was a relatively small chance that it would strike me again.

Why did I make such a radical move? I was scared by the single-minded obsession Republicans have with repealing the Affordable Care Act.

Had they taken over Congress and the White House in 2012, the law would already be toast. The Republican-controlled House knows its efforts are doomed in the Senate with its Democratic majority. Even so, caucus members gleefully vote again and again to eliminate in whole or part the greatest expansion of health care security for Americans since Medicare. Since Republicans took the House in January 2011 they have devoted 43 days or fully 15 percent of their floor time to it.

This is what I was weighing in 2011. Had I lived in Canada, France, Japan or any other advanced country, all of which provide their citizens with universal health care, I likely would have opted for a more conservative approach, knowing I would always have access to the regular mammograms and biopsies that are part of the vigilance after a cancer scare. But I live in the United States, where one major political party believes that a medical safety net is a socialist plot.

The ACA guarantees Americans access to comprehensive and affordable health insurance beginning in 2014. Without it, I could one day find myself uninsured. Breast cancer is just the kind of pre-existing condition that makes you uninsurable in the glorious free market that Republicans always laud.

Having a double mastectomy would put me at less risk of bankruptcy from future medical bills by virtually eliminating the possibility of recurrence. And I wouldn't have to worry about unaffordable mammograms or biopsies. Almost no tissue remains that could hide a growing cancer.

Health care for Jolie is purely medical. For me and women like me it is also political and financial. When we make calculated decisions about which breast cancer treatment to choose, like a House whip, we're counting congressional votes alongside medical risk factors.

With Republicans in Congress waiting for their opportunity to kill off my medical and financial security, I simply couldn't risk keeping my breasts.

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