Although we don’t yet have a cure for cancer, we do have excellent screening tools and genetic testing available. The problem is that too many people can’t access these possibly life-saving tools.
Breast cancer, for example. According to the PA Breast Cancer Coalition, 38 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in Pennsylvania every day, that is, almost 14,000 a year. Nearly 13% of all women will develop breast cancer during their lifetimes, according to the American Cancer Society.
Mammograms are the most recognized screening measure for detecting breast cancer. In the United States, mammograms have reduced the mortality rate of breast cancer by nearly 40% since 1990. And they are available at no cost.
But for some women, a mammogram alone isn’t enough. It can miss a cancer or find it too late.
These women need better scans, and fortunately we have them. Clinical trials have shown that MRIs are more than twice as accurate in detecting breast cancer as three-dimensional mammograms for high-risk women. It is very important that MRIs be available at no cost for those women.
And many — high risk patients specifically — also need genetic testing. Many people don’t realize this, but this testing is as important to men as for women — and it’s important not just for the people being tested, but for their children and grandchildren.
The most well-known genetic cancer testing is BRCA gene testing. BRCA1 and BRCA2 are tumor suppressor genes that are crucial to fighting cancer. Both men and women who inherit a BRCA gene mutation are much more likely to develop a hereditary cancer, such as breast or prostate cancer.
Discovering one has the BRCA gene is a life-saving development can lead to preventive treatments and to early cancer detection. Genetic testing also provides essential information to family members who may have a high likelihood of inheriting a mutation and developing cancer.
MRIs and genetic testing can save lives. However, both come with hefty price tags and insurance hurdles.
I have met many cancer survivors and passionate advocates within my senatorial district and throughout Pennsylvania — women like the southwest vice president of the PA Breast Cancer Coalition Mary Ann Cupples-Wisnowski. Mary Ann is a 24-year breast cancer survivor with multiple high-risk factors, including a family history, personal history and dense breast tissue. Her story truly has inspired me.
Having a family discussion about cancer after a relative is diagnosed is inevitable.
For me, the conversation came when my father — diagnosed with prostate cancer at a relatively young age – had already been fighting for years. He had a radical prostatectomy, multiple rounds of radiation, hormone therapy and a host of other drugs to try to stop the spread. Every treatment seemed to buy us some time. But just when we thought it was eradicated, the prostate-specific antigen, or PSA, would reappear, indicating the cancer had metastasized in his body.
We couldn’t understand why the cancer was winning.
We began tracing our family’s medical history. Two of my father’s uncles discovered prostate cancer in their eighties, which is after the age PSA testing is recommended. Sadly, both succumbed to the disease. My father’s grandmother, Mary, had breast cancer in her early thirties and ovarian cancer in her sixties.
There had always been talk of a genetic component to our family’s battle with cancer, but we never had a clear answer. Finally, with modern science, physicians have discovered that the BRCA gene mutation is the culprit to our family’s history.
I have the BRCA gene.
Having the gene does not necessarily mean I will get cancer, but it does make me more conscious of my health care. Checking my PSAs to establish a baseline will give me a fighting chance in the event I receive the dreadful news of having cancer.
My cousin received a dual cancer diagnosis of breast and melanoma at the age of 41. Armed with the knowledge that she was BRCA positive, she took aggressive surgical treatments to be the first in our family to beat the haunting disease.
Senate Bill 8 is a comprehensive breast cancer screening and testing bill that will eliminate all costs associated with breast MRI, ultrasound and genetic testing and counseling for Pennsylvanians at high-risk for hereditary cancers. The bill is widely supported, having gained bipartisan support and praise. It is a significant step in cancer prevention in Pennsylvania.
For me, it’s personal — just as it is for many of you.
The earlier we can detect cancer, the earlier we can save lives.
First published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Devlin Robinson represents Pennsylvania’s 37th Senatorial District, which includes parts of Allegheny County. He is a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 8, with Sen. Kim Ward, the first female president pro tempore and BRCA-positive breast cancer survivor, and Sen. Tracy Pennycuick.