Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady in Honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month

October 23, 2009

MRS. OBAMA: Thank you. Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome. I am so thrilled you could join us today as we mark National Breast Cancer Awareness Month right here at the White House.

And I want to thank Jill so much for that kind introduction, as well as her phenomenal work that she's done to educate young women about this disease.

I think Jill is one of those examples of how one passionate advocate can really make a difference, and we are grateful to you for your leadership and the successes that you've had in your work. And most of all, I am grateful to you for your friendship, as always.

I also want to thank Tina Tchen, who many of you already know for her outstanding work as Director of the Office of Public Engagement. Tina, thank you so much. And I want to take a moment -- yes, let's give Tina -- (applause.) I don't want to step on your applause, Tina.

And I also want to take a moment to recognize all of the survivors and the advocates who are here today who have worked so hard and for so long to raise money and raise awareness to fight this disease, particularly Vernal, Joni, and Venus, for having the courage to share their stories with us today. I mean, it's hard getting up and speaking about good news, right, let alone to talk about something that is so personal to a crowd of strangers and a whole lot of cameras. (Laughter.)

So -- but it's important for them and for us to remind them that it's sharing these stories that really makes a difference. It takes the veil off of this disease, because it wasn't that long ago that people thought that breast cancer was something to be ashamed of and to keep it a secret; something that you didn't discuss in polite company. Some people even wondered, if you can believe it or not, whether breast cancer was contagious. And at the first fundraising lunch hosted by the Komen Foundation, the description of the event was written in one paper as a "women's cancer event," because the word "breast" was considered too risqué to print.

But then, people like you, all of you here, started speaking out, including two of my predecessors, First Ladies Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan. They began speaking out.

Survivors and those who love them started organizing and advocating and lobbying for more money, for more research, and better treatment for this disease.

And then folks like Venus and Jill started working to educate and empower people to promote early detection and make sure that people were getting the care that they needed.

And today, because of that work, the number of women getting regular mammograms has dramatically increased, and the five-year survival rate when breast cancer is diagnosed in time is 98 percent -- and that's compared to 74 percent in the early 80s.

And today, we spend $900 million on breast cancer research, which is 30 times more than what we spent in 1982. So we have come a long way. (Applause.)

And you should all be proud of what you've achieved to get us this far. But what we all know is that we are not finished yet. We are not finished yet. We know we're not finished when nearly one in eight women is still diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime -- a total of one woman every three minutes -- and nearly 2,000 men are diagnosed each year as well, and that's something we don't often discuss.

And we know we're not finished when 40,000 women a year still die from this disease. That's one woman every 13 minutes who's dying from this disease today.

And we know we're not finished, especially not when we have a health care system in this country that simply is not working for too many people with breast cancer and too many people who are surviving with breast cancer. It's a system that only adds to the fear and stress that already comes with the disease.

And I'm not just talking about women without insurance, who face the terrifying prospect, as you've heard, of having to pay the full cost of their treatment on their own.

I am talking about people in this country who have insurance who have breast cancer -- folks who all too often find themselves also paying outrageous out-of-pocket costs.

According to a new report released by the Department of Health and Human Services today, breast cancer patients with employer-sponsored insurance paid an average of more than $6,200 in out-of-pocket costs over the course of a year. And some wound up paying as much as $10,000 or $20,000, and 5 percent with private insurance paid more than $30,000 a year for their treatment.

This is with insurance. These are people who are blessed.

And then there are those annual lifetime caps that insurance companies set, where once you go over that cap -- as many women do because some forms of breast cancer are so expensive to treat -- then that cap makes it impossible to pay a penny more for that treatment.

And one recent survey showed that 10 percent of all cancer patients report hitting a cap on their benefits, leaving them scrambling to find alternative insurance to figure out how to pay out of pocket for the rest of their lifetime.

And then there's what happens when you've gone through all the treatment and you're finally in remission, which should be good news. You're finally in remission and you're finally feeling like yourself again. You feel whole and happy. But then, as you've heard, you're stuck, as Joni said, with a target on your back for the rest of your life with a "preexisting condition," which means that insurance companies can deny you coverage or charge you higher rates for coverage -- sometimes much higher.

That's exactly what happened to Vernal, to Joni, and to Venus. These women were denied insurance, and now Joni and Venus are each paying very high premiums for their coverage. And as you've heard, Venus's insurance won't even cover treatment if she has a reoccurrence.

So I know that a lot of survivors like them are terrified. They are living in fear of losing their jobs or changing jobs or even moving, because they worry they won't be able to find affordable insurance.

And perhaps most heartbreaking of all is the fact that right now, today in America, there are people in this country who have breast cancer but don't even know it, because they can't afford a mammogram. According to our new report, one in five women age 50 and above haven't gotten a mammogram in the past two years. And while that's better than it was a few decades ago, it's nowhere near good enough.

And this is not acceptable. This is not acceptable in this country. This is something that could happen to any of us.

And this is a disease, as we know, that affects not just those diagnosed with it, and not just those who've survived it and those who've lost their lives to it, but it is a disease that also affects those who love and know them -- which these days seems like almost every single person in this country.

That's why it is so critically important that we finally reform our health care system that is causing so much heartache for so many people affected by this disease. Now is the time.

Fortunately, that's exactly what the plans being considered by Congress right now would do.

So just to be clear, under these plans, if you already have insurance that works for you, then you're all set. You can keep your insurance and you can keep your doctors.

The plans put in place some basic rules of the road to protect you from abuses and unfair practices by insurance companies. That would mean no more denying coverage to people like women we heard from today because of so-called preexisting conditions like having survived cancer. (Applause.) Because there's a belief that if you've already fought cancer, you shouldn't have to also fight with insurance companies to get the coverage that you need at a price that you can afford. (Applause.)

These plans mean insurance companies will no longer be allowed to cap the amount of coverage that you can get, and will limit how much insurance companies can charge you for out-of-pocket expenses, because in this country, getting sick shouldn't mean going bankrupt. (Applause.)

And finally, these plans will require insurance companies to cover basic preventative care -- from routine checkups, to mammograms, to pap smears -- at no extra charge to you. And though I want to emphasize that in the end, as we all know, it's our responsibility as women to also talk to our doctors about what screenings that we need and then make the appointments to get those screenings, even when it's inconvenient or maybe a little bit uncomfortable. It's something that we owe not just to ourselves but to the people that love us.

Because we know the difference that early detection makes. We know that if breast cancer is detected early, it's far easier to cure and much less costly to treat. So we can save money, we can save lives, and we do right by the people that we love.

So that's how health insurance reform will work. That's how it will help people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer and those who've survived the disease. But first, we have to get it passed. First we have to get it passed. (Applause.)

But that's the hard part. We know that there are all sorts of myths and misconceptions out there, and we know there are folks who will do anything they can to stop reform because, for whatever reason, they want to keep things the way they are.

From where we stand now, it might seem like an uphill battle. But fortunately, folks like you know a little something about an uphill battle, right? You know a thing or two about overcoming long odds and rallying people to an important cause.

Now, let's remember that there was a time when those affected by breast cancer never could have imagined all these pink ribbons that would one day grace the White House, offices, storefronts, lapels. I don't think they could have imagined some hulking NFL player decked out in pink cleats and pink gloves. (Laughter and applause.) I don't think they could have imagined a day when so many people would wear jeans to raise money for a cure. I don't think they could have imagined how many people would lace up their shoes to take part in walks and runs and races all across America.

And it is my hope that if we pass health insurance reform, then 20 or 30 years from now, just imagine, our daughters and our granddaughters won't be able to imagine a time when any woman in this country couldn't get a mammogram because she couldn't afford it. (Applause.) I hope that our children and grandchildren won't be able to imagine a time when anyone in this country went bankrupt just because they had the misfortune of getting sick. And I hope that statistics like one in eight and one every 13 minutes will be incomprehensible to our kids -- incomprehensible -- because of all the strides that we've made and the work that we've done for this cure and for this reform.

And in the end, that's really what health insurance reform is all about. It's not about us. It's about them. It's about the future. That is what we're fighting for. That's what we have to remember. That's what this fight is about.

And that's why we're so grateful to all of you for the hard work and commitment and sacrifices that you've made. And we look forward to working with all of you in the weeks and months ahead. Thank you so much. Thank you.

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady in Honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320213

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