On Senator Barbara Mikulski, Cancer, and Feminism

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When I recently heard that Barbara Mikulski’s announcement that she is not going to run for another term in the U.S. Senate, after serving there for over 25 years, I started thinking about when she first appeared on my radar.

I first learned who Barbara Mikulski was in 2001. I was in my first year of graduate school and was researching a paper on the National Breast And Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program. The program provides low- or no-cost mammograms and Pap tests to low-income women.  I chose that topic because my mother had just been successfully treated for breast cancer and the subject was never far from my mind at the time. As a public policy student with a personal cancer connection, I wanted to know what, if anything, the government did to help women with cancer.

What I found was that U.S. Senator Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland, had been the lead sponsor of the Breast and Cervical Cancer Prevention Act of 1990, the Senate version of the bill that became the law that rolled the whole program into being. Ten years later, Senator Mikulski would be the lead sponsor on The Breast and Cervical Cancer Prevention and Treatment Act, which would expand the program beyond merely screening for cancer but would allow women with a cancer diagnosis to access treatment under Medicaid. As I pored over the Congressional Record from 1990 and 2000s when the bills were being debated and saw the remarks from Senator Mikulski, I was overcome with the sense that there was at least one person in the Capitol who was willing to stand up for women.

In 2004, I would do two things: vote for Barbara Mikulski as a new resident of Maryland and begin my tenure working on cancer advocacy with the American Cancer Society.

Cancer is a beast. Cancer is a terrible disease that operates with blind intensity, ravaging the human body and taking strength, vitality, and life if left unchecked. Cancer is completely egalitarian. Cancer does not care how old you are, how healthy you are, what race you are, what gender you are, what religion you are, what political party you are, where you live, how much money you make. Cancer wants to kill you. That is all.

That is what I learned in my years working with people who were trying to end cancer as a public health threat and people who had survived cancer and were volunteering their time in service of that mission — cancer survivors are as different from one another as snowflakes and cancer is brutal to all of them. When an individual begins to fight cancer, they need an army to help them. They need researchers, diagnosticians, oncologists, oncology nurses, social workers, family support, home health support, quality of life specialists, friends, and even the good souls in hospice care.

For many people, although they might not know it, their cancer fight needed Barbara Mikulski. Way back in 1990, Senator Mikulski understood the egalitarian nature of breast and cervical cancer. She knew that the only thing that matters to cancer is that the host provides a place for it to grow. As I said, cancer doesn’t care who you are. Cancer wants to kill you. Barbara Mikulski also doesn’t care who you are. Barbara Mikulski wants to save your life.

The National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program, in my opinion, is a shining example of intersectional feminism made manifest. The threat of breast and cervical cancer is universal to women (and men, though more rarely). The steps to prevent or detect those cancers early are also universal. Mammography and Pap tests are safe, accurate and, relatively speaking, low cost screenings that can save lives. However, for low-income or uninsured women, these tests can be out of reach. Senator Mikulski, and her allies in Congress, saw a way to even the playing field. By making mammograms, Pap tests, and cancer treatment available to women regardless of income, they made sure income was not a factor in whether or not a woman survived cancer. The NBCCEDP makes available to all women what was once only available to women of certain means. Equality among women.

Senator Mikulski was never on the morning shows with glossy hair and a sleek suit talking about the feminism of the corner office. In her decades in Congress, Senator Mikulski was in the trenches solving real problems, saving real lives, not caring who you are, only that you are someone with a need that she could help fulfill. She supported the  Equal Rights Amendment, the Lilly Ledbetter Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Affordable Care Act, just to name a few. If there was legislation that made women’s lives better, you can probably bet that Barbara Mikulski’s name is on it somewhere.

I’m proud to have been a constituent of the great Senator Mikulski. She was my champion as a cancer advocate, as a woman, and as an American. I am grateful for her service.

Rebekah Kuschmider is a DC area mom with an over-developed sense of irreverence, socialist tendencies, a cable news addiction, and a blog. Rebekah has an undergraduate degree in theater and Master’s in Arts Policy and Administration and a decade of experience managing arts organizations and advocating in the public health sector.  Rebekah also blogs about her life, her thoughts, and her opinions at StayAtHomePundit.com. She was voted one of the Top 25 Political Mom Blogs at Circle of Moms. Her work has also been seen at Babble.com , Salon.com, Redbook online, and the Huffington Post. 

Photo Credit: iStock, www.mikulski.senate.gov

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