Beating breast cancer with coverage, prevention, and precision medicine



(By MesserWoland/CC 3.0 License)
(By MesserWoland/CC 3.0 License)

Earlier this year, U.S. Health and Human Services Department Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell met Laura Holmes Haddad in San Francisco. Laura is an author, a mother and a survivor. Specifically, a survivor of stage four breast cancer.

Her diagnosis was one that too many of our sisters, our mothers, our daughters and women around this nation have faced. Breast cancer is the most common cancers affecting women. Every woman has the chance of a breast cancer diagnosis during her lifetime, and about one in every eight women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer, like Laura. Too many women have lost that battle — breast cancer is the second-leading cancer killer of women today, just behind lung cancer.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a time for us to reflect and rededicate ourselves to fighting this disease. With early detection, many women can take the first steps toward treatment. In fact, most women with breast cancer will survive it. We just need to make sure that women get the screenings, like mammograms, that can help catch breast cancer early and start them on the path toward treatment.

That’s why the benefits and protections of the Affordable Care Act are so important. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, anyone shopping for health insurance today has access to recommended preventive services at no extra cost. That means there are no out-of-pocket cost for wellness visits and genetic counseling for women at increased risk of breast cancer.

Laura was fortunate to have health insurance when she discovered her breast cancer. And millions of women who were uninsured before the Affordable Care Act now have insurance as well. In fact, since the law took effect, the rate of uninsurance for women in the United States has dropped from 18.9 percent to 10.8 percent, as 8.2 million more women have gained health coverage.

And we can help millions more get this coverage. As Breast Cancer Awareness Month ends, the start of the third Open Enrollment begins. From November 1, 2015 until January 31, 2016, women (and men) across the nation will be able to shop for affordable, quality health coverage through the Marketplace.

For people who need coverage that starts on January 1, the deadline for enrollment is December 15. The best place to find out more information about Open Enrollment is right on

With insurance and a diagnosis, Laura still had to fight her cancer. Traditional chemotherapy didn’t work for her. But cutting-edge research into our own genetic makeup has produced breakthroughs in new medicines and new ways to personalize treatment. We call this effort Precision Medicine, and it’s a top priority for Secretary Burwell, HHS, and our colleagues across the Administration.

Laura learned that she had a mutation in her BRCA2 gene, and an experimental treatment called a PARP-inhibitor could deprive her tumor of what it needed to grow and sustain itself. Thanks to a clinical trial which offered this treatment, and the way it was tailored to her own genetic makeup, Laura had no evidence of her cancer as of August 2013.

Laura’s story is a triumph, and shows us how we can make sure that millions more share in that triumph. We need to get more women covered. We need to make sure they use that coverage for preventive services like cancer screenings. And we need to invest in the scientific breakthroughs and new treatments that are revolutionizing the way we treat illnesses.


      — Information provided by the Department of Health and Human Services. Mary K. Wakefield is HHS Acting Deputy Secretary.