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Maryland politicians take steps to promote women's health

Ever since 1992, Maryland legislators have been actively trying to address women's health issues related to breast and cervical cancers.

That was the year the state established the Breast Cancer and Cervical Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment Program to ensure that women with limited income and no health insurance get medical care that could save their lives.

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Between 2007 and 2012, this program's free pap tests detected 271 invasive breast cancers.

In the most recent General Assembly session, state lawmakers acted to expand on a 2012 law that removed inequities in what insurers charge patients for intravenous versus oral chemotherapy medications. The prime House sponsor was Del. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam of Baltimore County.

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The prime Senate sponsor was Sen. Jim Mathias of Ocean City, whose wife died of breast cancer after a 14-year battle in 2011.

Kathy Mathias, known as "the first lady of Ocean City," was 58 and had been a longtime advocate for heightened breast cancer awareness.

The goal of the Kathleen A. Mathias Chemotherapy Parity Improvement Act of 2014 is to ensure that more Maryland women have access to the most effective cancer treatments without posing a financial burden to the patient's family. The bill extends the state's parity law to all state-regulated health plans.

Breast cancer remains the second leading cause of death for women in Maryland, after lung cancer. Yet thanks to increased screening and better access to state-of-the-art treatment options, breast cancer deaths in Maryland have dropped 25 percent since 2002.

The state's breast cancer program provides funds for diagnostic and treatment services for uninsured, low-income women who are 19 or older.

The hope is that thanks to the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — more women will have health insurance, allowing them to receive regular breast exams. That could have a profound effect on Maryland's breast cancer mortality rate.

The state Department of Legislative Services reported earlier this year that there was good news and bad news on the cancer-prevention front:

"Both the overall cancer mortality rate and the breast cancer mortality rate continue to decline steadily in Maryland. However, the prevalence of cigarette smoking among middle and high school students has remained relatively constant since calendar year 2006."

This is troubling for a number of reasons.

A growing number of studies point to the enhanced risk of developing breast cancer if women start smoking when they are in their teens.

A report in February from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle found that women ages 20 to 44 who smoked heavily — a pack a day for 10 years — were 60 percent more likely to develop estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer than casual smokers.

The study also found young women who had smoked were nearly 30 percent more likely than non-smokers to develop breast cancer of some kind.

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"I think that there is growing evidence that breast cancer is another health hazard associated with smoking," said Dr. Christopher Li, the senior researcher on the project.

The importance of cancer awareness hasn't been lost on politicians.

For instance, Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan Jr. recently held a rally in Annapolis to promote breast cancer awareness.

It was his attempt to counter charges by Democratic nominee Anthony Brown that Hogan is a foe of women's rights issues.

Hogan followed up in the first governor's debate on Oct. 7 by wearing a large pink and purple ribbon on his coat lapel to honor Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Domestic Violence Month.

If nothing else, he "one-upped" his opponent that night with his couture accessory.

Barry Rascovar's columns can be found at http://www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at brascovar@hotmail.com.

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