Feinstein Takes Cancer Project Personally

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) runs the Surf Caucus. Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) has the Boots (as in cowboy) Caucus.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s pet project is far more serious.

“You’re never the same after you go through it with a loved one. You’re determined to do something about it,” said the California Democrat, co-chair of the Senate’s informal Cancer Coalition. “Once the tentacles of cancer wrap around you and your family . . . it’s a life-shattering experience.”


At a White House ceremony last week to unveil a new postage stamp intended to raise money and awareness for breast cancer research, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke of how the disease had touched her life, remembering her late mother-in-law’s tireless fight against it. Betsy Mullen of Covina, who had lobbied hard for the new stamp, told of her mastectomy at the age of 33, her six months of chemotherapy and how the treatment brought on early menopause so she can never bear children.

Feinstein ticked off cold facts: Breast cancer affects one of every eight American women, killing one every 12 minutes. Research funds have jumped 600% since she entered the Senate in 1992, yet less than a third of the grants on the topic get funded.

The next day, tears welled in her eyes as Feinstein explained how she got to that podium.


Her husband, Richard Blum, lost both his parents to the disease. Blum was 10 when his father, one of the rare men afflicted with breast cancer, left his San Francisco home for treatment at a Los Angeles clinic. He never returned.

Her previous husband, Bert Feinstein, struggled for two years before succumbing in 1978 to colon cancer that had metastasized in his liver.

Grasping for hope, the Feinsteins went to Albuquerque, N.M., for an experimental heat treatment. Doctors pushed Bert’s body temperature up to a scorching 108 degrees in an attempt to kill the cancer. Ultimately, it killed him.

“He died a month later. The pain was extraordinary.”

It was a more recent victim, though, that Feinstein said she was thinking of during last week’s ceremony for the stamp, the nation’s first that will be sold for more than its value--40 cents instead of 32--to raise money for a cause.

Susan Yoachum, political editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, battled breast cancer for seven years before her death in June at the age of 43. Feinstein, a former mayor of San Francisco, had known Yoachum for two decades. They were “friends--as much as one can be friends, with our different occupations,” Feinstein said.

What made Yoachum’s death perhaps the most difficult for Feinstein was how hard the journalist fought against the disease.

“How desperately she wanted to live,” the senator said. “She fought and fought and fought.”

The Postal Service has printed 200 million of the new stamps, with their bright colors and the brazen image of Diana, goddess of the hunt, and the bold demand: Fund the Fight, Find a Cure. If every one sells, it will raise $16 million. Which is probably not enough.


Feinstein does not serve on any health committee. She is more often talking about guns, or immigration, or China policy. Cancer is not her political priority, per se. It’s a personal thing.

It sounds trite, but politicians are people, after all.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma) knows about welfare because she used to be on it. Rep. Nancy Johnson (D-Conn.), wife of an ob-gyn, is one of the strongest congressional proponents of birth control and abortion rights. Former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kansas) famously supported the sweeping Americans With Disabilities Act because of his war injury. When the Science Committee ponders El Nino, Rohrabacher is the only member who considers the impact on the waves.

Feinstein’s co-chair of the cancer coalition, Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), has had more than his share of personal experience. A melanoma survivor, Mack lost both his parents and a 35-year-old brother to the disease. His wife, Priscilla, survived breast cancer. Their daughter, Debbie, lived through cervical cancer.

Together, Feinstein and Mack have had five hearings on cancer since forming the coalition in 1994, on everything from genetic testing to environmental risk factors. Feinstein’s got a bill pending that would prevent so-called drive-by mastectomies--after surviving two surgeries to remove non-malignant tumors from her own breasts, she is appalled at the notion of women getting less than a day in the hospital to recover.

In a world of rhetoric often far removed from reality, Feinstein says cancer is among the most tangible issues she touches.

“Cancer doesn’t know any ideology,” she said. “It’s not left or right or centrist. It’s a real problem.”