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Fla. congresswoman fought cancer in secret

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz hated relying too much on her staff, but she needed them to keep up appearances during her undercover battle against cancer.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., in a Sept. 19, 2008 file photo.Lynne Sladky / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz hated relying too much on her staff, but she needed them to keep up appearances during her undercover battle against cancer.

After several major surgeries, including a double mastectomy, she couldn't even carry her own papers in the Capitol. Staff even helped her look cheerful when she hosted a fundraiser for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

"I was hooked up to drains and I had a pain pack coming out of my chest, which I hid with clothing and ingenious staff work on a purse," the Florida Democrat said, adding with a laugh, "I hugged people gingerly."

She handled her cancer the way she handles her job: taking on tasks gracefully, winning respect from colleagues from both parties.

But she said protecting her children — 9-year-old boy-and-girl twins, and another 5-year-old girl — came first. She would keep it a secret from her three children, too.

"Once I heard my doctors out and what the recommended course of treatment was, I really felt like it was best for my kids that I get all the way through it, deal with it privately and then when I was done with everything I would be able to share with them why Mommy had surgery and show them that I was going to be OK," Wasserman Schultz said.

Rising star
Still only 42 and considered a rising star in Democratic politics, she is chief deputy whip in the House and a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee. She frequently represents her party on national TV and heads a subcommittee that oversees funding for her legislative branch.

She also was very visible in the presidential campaigns of Sen. Hillary Clinton, and then Barack Obama.

"It's pretty amazing when people realize that she was already one of the hardest working people they knew and then to realize underneath, all this was going on in the background," said Rep. Melissa Bean, D-Ill., who shares a Washington apartment with Wasserman Schultz.

The congresswoman was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2007. She had the lump removed, but then tests showed a genetic mutation that put her at high risk for a recurrence of breast or ovarian cancer. So she scheduled additional surgeries, including the double mastectomy and having her ovaries removed. The last surgery was in December.

"It was just like every other thing she puts on her plate — 'I'm going to do this, I'm going to get through it' — always positive," Bean said.

Many politicians prominently hang news articles and photos of election victories and major bill signings. The largest frame in her office lobby holds a National Journal cover story titled "Member Moms" about her and other congresswomen who balance their jobs and motherhood. Inside her office, her kids' paintings take up a huge space on the wall.

"I start with taking care of my kids and my family and I structure my professional life around that. That comes first," she told The Associated Press in an interview three weeks before she made her cancer announcement.

Keeping it quiet
Other than family and close friends, she mentioned her health only to staffers who needed to know and two House colleagues, Bean and Rep. Ron Klein, a friend she served with in the Florida Senate.

She scheduled her surgeries when the House was on break.

"Walking down the hall, it hurt to even carry a folder, so I had to have my staff, which I hate doing because I'm very self-sufficient," she said.

Beyond protecting her children, there was another big reason why she kept her ordeal secret.

"I just didn't want it to define me. When I'm quoted in the newspaper, I didn't want to be 'Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who's battling breast cancer,'" she said. "I wanted to be viewed as a congresswoman, as a mom, as a fighter."

Pelosi said she was amazed that Wasserman Schultz was able to continue her work while fighting the disease.

Wasserman Schultz: Make Sure Our Votes Are Counted
Wasserman Schultz: Make Sure Our Votes Are CountedDennis Cook / AP / AP

"When I learned about all that Debbie had been through over the last year, like so many of our colleagues, I reacted with both shock and admiration," she said.

"I was amazed that Debbie was able to continue her relentless pace with her trademark energy, and I admire her strength and courage."

At the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee she serves as a vice chair in charge of member retention.

"She's very focused on working with us to try to push our agenda for change forward both on the policy front as well as the political front," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who chairs the DCCC. "Her hard work has been recognized and that's why she's been asked to take on additional responsibilities, here at the DCCC as well as the DNC."

That's another reason she kept her ordeal hidden, Bean said.

"Lovingly, people might have said, 'Let's not ask her to do that,'" Bean said. "She didn't want that level of protection. She thought, 'I'll decide what I can do and what I can't.'"

Her husband, Steve Schultz, said he wouldn't have told her to slow down while dealing with the cancer.

"She has a drive that she wants to go and work and work real hard and work a lot of hours and get it done. Who am I to say, 'Hey, no. You can't do that,'" he said.

And now she's taking on a new mission: Educating young women about breast cancer. She filed a bill that would direct the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to start a national education program aimed at women under 40 and doctors who see them.

"I know it's going to save lives, because there's going to be someone who hadn't thought about doing a self-exam who, hearing that story, is going to say 'Wow! I better pay more attention,'" Bean said.