Cancer lives desperately, inventively, fiercely, territorially, cannily, and defensively—at times, as if teaching us how to survive. To confront cancer is to encounter a parallel species, one perhaps more adapted to survival than even we are.

Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies

From President Richard Nixon’s war on cancer in 1971 to President Joe Biden’s commitment to “ending cancer as we know it” in 2022, fighting the disease has been a bipartisan focus. Yet in that era, when cancer hit home, policymakers often hushed their own diagnoses. But times change, and many of today’s lawmakers are now boldly sharing their personal experiences with cancer as inspiration for action.

Destigmatizing Cancer, From the White House to the Capitol

In January 2023, the White House released a statement that First Lady Jill Biden, “during a routine skin cancer screening, found a small lesion above her right eye.” Newsworthy yet almost nonchalant, the statement simply shared plans for the procedure to remove two cancerous lesions. On the heels of that scare, President Joe Biden also had a cancerous skin lesion removed in February 2023 according to a White House memo. The diagnoses add to the Bidens’ established history with the disease during their son Beau’s battle with brain cancer, which drove them to champion funding, policies, and their own charitable work for cancer research, prevention, and treatments—including the Cancer Moonshot, which bears their late son’s name.

U.S. Representative Jamie Raskin (D-MD) speaks often of his colorectal cancer experience in 2010, but in December 2022, he announced a new diagnosis: diffuse large B-cell lymphoma diagnosis and subsequent chemo-immunotherapy treatment. Raskin used his first-hand experience with the disease when serving on the Congressional Cancer and Nursing Caucuses and cosponsoring many ONS legislative priorities, including the Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act and Cancer Drug Parity Act.

In 2021, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) announced her own cancer diagnosis and treatment plan and kept the public informed about her prognosis, tweeting later that year, “Good news to share: I got my results back from my first six-month post-cancer exam and everything was clear. I’m so grateful to be healthy and thankful for my family, friends, and the incredible doctors and nurses who have helped me.” She used her experience as an opportunity to advocate for cancer screenings and to support a slew of healthcare priorities—including care for people with disabilities. In the 117th congressional session alone, Senator Klobuchar cosponsored legislation on increasing funding for rural health care, bills to protect personal health information, and policies to broaden state regulations to make health care universal and affordable. And she’s already continuing to champion screening in 2023, introducing S. 302 on February 7, “a bill to amend title 10, United States Code, to direct the Secretary of Defense to provide colorectal cancer screening for members of the uniformed services who served in locations associated with toxic exposure, and for other purposes.”

U.S. Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID), a two-time prostate cancer survivor, is yet another advocate whose experience fueled a passion for policies to promote affordable, quality care. His legislative goals include “working with my Senate colleagues to reform our system of health” so more Americans have access to care. By acknowledging his own cancer journey, the senator connected with his constituents and humanized the experience, and to reinforce his commitment, in 2021 he introduced the Medicare Multi-Cancer Early Detection Screening Coverage Act, bipartisan legislation to enhance prevention.

Latest Legislation Supports Survivorship

By sharing their cancer stories openly, those policymakers have promoted both public awareness and policies, but one of cancer care’s most vocal champions is U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), a breast cancer survivor. Her legendary leadership in proposing and passing bipartisan legislation for patient-centered care promotes health policy over political party interests. Wasserman Shultz calls on her survivorship status while actively partnering with ONS to develop and introduce law proposals, including her lead sponsorship of the latest legislation to support survivors.

“As a 15-year cancer survivor, confronting it head-on, with an all-hands-on-deck approach, is my personal and professional mission. With the Comprehensive Cancer Survivorship Act (CCSA), I am proud to introduce far-reaching legislation that better enables cancer survivors to choose their own path, provides them with agency and autonomy over their personal health experiences and decisions, and addresses the entire survivorship continuum of care,” Wasserman Schultz said. “From the point of diagnosis through active treatment and transitions to primary care, and even at the end of life, this legislation sets the standards of care that all survivors need and deserve. CCSA confronts care planning, transition, navigation, workforce, education, and awareness and empowers survivors with the best possible resources and care to overcome this terrible disease.”

Wasserman Shultz also speaks out when policy changes have implications for access to survivorship care. In a January 2023 interview with CBS Mornings, she raised awareness about a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services coding change for deep flap breast reconstruction after mastectomy that would limit reimbursement and render the procedure an unaffordable option for most patients.

“So much of what you go through the process of being a survivor turns on your psychological well-being and how you feel as a human,” Wasserman Shultz said, speaking from her personal experience. “This obstacle was put in the way of breast cancer survivors.”

Advocacy Ensures a Stronger Future

By boldly announcing their cancer diagnoses, elected officials are empowering more Americans to seek screening and treatment and more nurses to deliver patient-centered care, ultimately increasing survivorship. Nurses have a valuable voice in promoting health public policy programs that find strategies to change how cancer affects Americans. Follow these policymakers’ examples and advocate for strategies to break down barriers to care using your own experiences with the disease that touches us all.