WASHINGTON -- Actress Marcia Cross says she has next to nothing in common with her Desperate Housewives character, Bree Van de Kamp.
So while her television alter ego might obsessively fret about sweater sets and her family's reputation on Wisteria Lane, Cross was lobbying on Capitol Hill yesterday on behalf of sick people she's never met.
Cross joined a group that included lawmakers, a Maryland breast cancer survivor and officials from women's cable network Lifetime to call on Congress to pass the Breast Cancer Patient Protection Act of 2007 and prevent what they called "drive-by mastectomies."
The legislation would require that insurers cover up to a 48-hour stay in a hospital after a woman has had a mastectomy if the doctor and patient deem it necessary. Currently, 20 states defer that decision to doctors and patients. Supporters of the bill say that means many of the estimated 90,000 women who have mastectomies each year are sent home within hours or a day after surgery.
"One in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime," Cross said. "I've seen it up close and personally. I'm sorry to say I don't have a friend, but friends who've been diagnosed with breast cancer, and when I first heard about drive-by mastectomies I was shocked."
Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, an ovarian cancer survivor, first heard about the issue 12 years ago from a home-state oncologist, Dr. Kristin Zarfos, and has been pursuing legislation ever since. DeLauro, a Democrat, said its chances of passing have never been better because Democratic presidential contenders have made health care a prominent issue, and Democrats control Congress.
The House bill has 204 co-sponsors. The Senate version has 18. DeLauro planned to present lawmakers with a petition signed by 20 million on Lifetime's Web site, myLifetime. com. More specifically, she planned to present each member with the signatures of their constituents.
""I'll say, 'These folks are from your district,'" she said. "Then I think we'll get a hearing, and then it will be hard to keep it off the floor. And I don't think many will want to vote against two extra days for women who have gone through something as traumatic as this surgery."
One name on the list is Lynn Bradley, who attended the news conference yesterday. The Towson native had a mastectomy three years ago. And while she praised her doctors at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, they weren't able to keep her from being released just under 23 hours after her surgery.
Divorced with grown children, she was sent to an empty home to await test results that would show whether the surgery removed all her cancer, or if it had spread. Worse, she was hooked up to drains on both sides of her chest that required help to monitor. She said she was fortunate, however, because a close friend was willing to care for her fragile body and mind.
"I signed the petition and had to come today," said a now-healthy Bradley, who has since remarried and moved to Havre de Grace. "This legislation has to pass. Not everyone has someone like I did. Some people need to stay in the hospital around medical professionals."
Meredith Wagner, Lifetime's executive director of public affairs, said she would continue collecting signatures and pushing for the legislation as well as other bills benefiting women. She praised Bradley, Cross and the others for helping push DeLauro's bill.
Cross said for her part, she would like Hollywood to get more involved with the issue. She said roughly 20 million people a week watch ABC's Desperate Housewives, the same number who signed the petition, and television can be a powerful medium. Her show already has a character with a different kind of cancer, but she said she'd suggest other shows, such as Grey's Anatomy, dedicate an episode to drive-by mastectomies.
"I don't want this to be a one-hit day," she said after the news conference. "I really want to raise awareness and get this done after 12 years. I don't want it to go another five or 10."
About the act
Here are some details about the Breast Cancer Patient Protection Act of 2007:
The legislation: S. 459 and H.R. 758 would amend existing legislation to allow a woman and her doctor to decide whether she should stay in the hospital to recuperate for at least 48 hours after a mastectomy or if it's OK to go home. It would not require a hospital stay if it's not considered necessary by the doctor and patient. The legislation also would provide extra time at the hospital for lumpectomies and lymph node dissections, and for coverage for a second opinion. Currently, only 10 states require up to 48 hours of coverage after mastectomies, and 10 states have no specific time limit. The remaining 30 have no protections. Maryland has no law.
Sponsors: The House bill is sponsored by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, and has 204 co-sponsors. The Senate legislation is sponsored by Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican, and has 18 co-sponsors. They include Maryland Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Chris Van Hollen and Albert R. Wynn, all Democrats, and Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Democrat, is also a co-sponsor.
Petition: MyLifetime.com, the Web site for women's cable network Lifetime, collected 20 million signatures on a petition in support of the legislation. It was presented to lawmakers at a news conference in the Capitol yesterday.
Potential impacts: One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetimes, and about 90,000 have mastectomies each year.
[ SOURCES: LIFETIME, AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY, LIBRARY OF CONGRESS]