A Mastectomy and a Side of Fries?

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“I'll never forget the look in my patients eyes when I had to tell them they had to go home with the drains, new exercises and no breast,” recalls one nurse. “I remember begging the doctors to keep these women in the hospital longer, only to hear that they would, but their hands were tied by the insurance companies. So there I sat with my patients, giving them the instructions they needed to take care of themselves, knowing full well they didn't grasp half of what I was saying, because the glazed, hopeless, frightened look spoke louder than the quiet 'thank you' they muttered.”

I'm talking about your mother, wife, daughter, sister and best friend … not a side of fries at a fast food restaurant. With insurance companies refusing to cover an overnight hospital visit, we are treated like a McDonald's drive-thru order if we have the misfortune of requiring a mastectomy, lumpectomy or lymph node dissection. As the most common form of cancer among women, the chance of developing breast cancer at some point in a woman's life averages about one in eight, or 13 percent. If you're like most of us and know someone who's ever undergone a mastectomy, you know there's a lot of pain and discomfort after the procedure. It's time to put a stop to “drive-thru” mastectomies, and let's drive the point home — that mastectomies should not be considered outpatient procedures.

Certain states have determined that it's necessary to let us (and our doctors) make this decision on hospital stays, but we can't say the same for our federal government. After four previous attempts in Congress, Sen. Mary Landau (D-La.), Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) renewed their support for the Breast Cancer Patient Protection Act this year. The bi-partisan act aims to end the practice of quickie operations, where women are often forced to leave the hospital mere hours after their physically and emotionally draining procedures — handcuffing doctors from intervening regardless of whether its medically suitable for the patient to return home.

Just how would this bill work? It would require insurance companies to cover a minimum 48-hour hospital stay for patients undergoing a mastectomy. It does not mandate the two-day hospital stay, nor does it set two days as the maximum amount of time a woman can stay. It simply ensures that any decision in favor of a shorter or longer recovery time will be made by the patient and doctor, not the HMO. In addition, the bill supports coverage for receiving a lumpectomy followed by radiation so that no decision to have a mastectomy is purely economically driven. Women need to make decisions based on the medical facts — not the status of their pocketbook.

Ladies, husbands, brothers, uncles and best friends — we need your help. In 1997, Congresswoman DeLauro sponsored the Breast Cancer Protection Act, but it was never brought to the floor for a vote after its introduction in Congress. Sadly, it languished without action in various congressional committees until it expired with the end of the 105th Congress. DeLauro didn't give up and has since sponsored the same bill four more times. In each case, the bill's fate remained the same: it decayed in a committee, never reaching a vote. But times have changed and with a new Congress DeLauro and others renewed their efforts to eliminate “drive-thru” mastectomies once and for all. So far, the bill has broad support with 185 co-sponsors in the Senate and 127 co-sponsors in the House.

To my surprise, the National Breast Cancer Coalition does not consider the bill a priority. The NBCC says that we should work on overall health care rather than trying to reform health care one benefit at a time. Additionally, they cite several medical studies that do not necessarily support the benefits of extended hospital care over outpatient mastectomies. Now both points may be valid, but why should insurance companies dictate that we be discharged from the hospital still groggy from anesthesia and accompanied with drainage tubes? It's not about ignoring other health care issues, it's about insisting that we receive adequate care following major surgery, and more than 14 million people agree.

Lifetimetv.com has collected 14 million signatures for their online petition in support of this legislation. The re-introduction follows a recent Capitol Hill press conference, part of the network's “Stop Breast Cancer for Life” campaign, featuring Grammy-nominated singer Jewel.

Sen. Snowe said it best: “guaranteeing that women have the option of remaining in the hospital for up to 48 hours following a mastectomy provides both the patient and doctor with peace of mind and the time to make appropriate treatment decisions. It's inexplicable that the Congress has not taken action to ensure the basic right of adequate treatment.”

We have the right, along with our doctors (the experts!) to determine whether to remain or leave the hospital after invasive disfiguring and emotional surgery — “not by the nameless, faceless file clerks following nameless, faceless guidelines.” I know too many women who've been forced to bow down to the fine print of our HMO's and its unacceptable that in a civilized country, we're out the doors with our wounds barely sewn together. If you're interested in joining this petition, click here — it only takes five seconds of your time. When faced with a crisis like breast cancer, we should be concentrating on fighting the disease, not the insurance company.


Detailed Guide: Breast Cancer

NBCC does not support the Breast Cancer Patient Protection Act

Sign the Petition

Breast Cancer Patient Protection Act

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Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently a professor of law at the New York Law School. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. Lis is also the author of The 51% Minority — How Women Still Are Not Equal and What You Can Do About It. (Watch the Video) To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.