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Bipartisan congressional spouses tackle cancer prevention, and leave politics out

Patti Garamendi (seated in blue) chairs the congressional spouses club. She recently attended a Capitol Hill reception with her husband, Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif. (standing above her) to tout a bipartisan project aimed at cancer prevention.
Marion Meakem Photography
Patti Garamendi (seated in blue) chairs the congressional spouses club. She recently attended a Capitol Hill reception with her husband, Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif. (standing above her) to tout a bipartisan project aimed at cancer prevention.

Updated May 08, 2024 at 11:53 AM ET

There's an exclusive club in Washington, where politics is left at the door.

Congressional spouses from across the ideological spectrum are teaming up to prevent cancer.

Patti Garamendi, president of the bipartisan congressional spouses club, told NPR at a reception for the cause that she advises all new spouses to join the effort. "There's one organization you need to involve yourself in and it's the prevent cancer organization."

Garamendi's husband is California Democrat John Garamendi. But the club's long tradition is to avoid partisanship. "We just don't go near that — ever," she said.

Lisa McGovern, wife of Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern, is the executive director of the Prevent Cancer Foundation's Congressional Families Program. The program was created by Doris Matsui, then spouse of Rep. Bob Matsui, D-Calif. He succumbed to cancer in 2005, and she succeeded him in Congress. The bipartisan project keeps bringing new spouses from both parties together, and works to provide resources to projects across the country to highlight awareness and prevention.

President Biden signed a proclamationrecently that dubbed April "National Cancer Prevention and Early Detection Month," and first lady Jill Biden recently spoke at an event for the congressional spouses club.

Lifestyles of spouses bond the group

McGovern says spouses have found it easy to develop bonds through the club. "The truth is, our lifestyles are so unique and so similar that we understand each other better than our own families understand."

Lisa McGovern, Executive Director of the Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program speaks during a reception with congressional members and spouses showcasing bipartisan support for cancer prevention and early detection at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC on April 19, 2023.
/ Oliver Contreras/Sipa USA
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Oliver Contreras/Sipa USA
Lisa McGovern, executive director of the Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program, speaks during a reception with congressional members and spouses showcasing bipartisan support for cancer prevention and early detection at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., on April 19, 2023.

She says all spouses have a couple things in common: "We have a love of family and emphasis on health."

Three weeks after her husband was sworn in in 1997 McGovern's mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. She died three weeks later. Her husband had thyroid cancer. And five years ago their college-age daughter Molly was diagnosed with a rare cancer. She entered a clinical trial and continues to be monitored.

"It changes your life," McGovern said of her daughter's diagnosis. "But there was so much love and gratitude from both sides of the aisle that came our way and lifted us up. And so, again, this is personal for us, but unfortunately, it's personal for almost every single family, not only in the Congress, but across the country."

She says the elected members of Congress often grab the headlines — but this group can use their own leverage. "We don't have that kind of spotlight, but we have little spotlights and wherever we can use that spotlight to shine a light on some of this stuff to help improve the health of Americans, we're going to do it."

McGovern met Charlie Capito, husband of West Virginia Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, through the group. He says they've teamed up to boost awareness about early cancer prevention.

"I've enjoyed immensely, you know, the things I have been able to get engaged and involved in. I really get excited when Lisa calls," Capito told NPR.

Capito served as the first male president of the board of the spouses group in 2021. He got to know a high-profile male spouse well — Doug Emhoff, when his wife, then Sen. Kamala Harris — attended orientation. "For whatever reason, at the very first breakfast, we kind of connected and you know, we don't see each other a lot."

The Congressional Families Program at the Prevent Cancer Foundation hosted an event recognizing leaders on Capitol Hill on April 11, 2014. Lisa McGovern (on right on stage) stressed that spouses of lawmakers in both parties collaborate across the country.
/ Marion Meakem Photography
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Marion Meakem Photography
The Congressional Families Program at the Prevent Cancer Foundation hosted an event recognizing leaders on Capitol Hill on April 11, 2014. Lisa McGovern (on right on stage) stressed that spouses of lawmakers in both parties collaborate across the country.

Capito stresses about the role when he presided over meetings and events with the congressional club, "the politics just sort of doesn't find a way into that boardroom."

Focus on early detection, prevention and awareness across regions with differing cancer rates

Capito's mother died of cancer years ago, and he says the disease persists — across age, gender or income.

"It's not going to go away any time soon. I hope it does. But it's just something that if we can make a difference in any of the multitude of things that we do, that's a great thing."

Capito invited Lisa McGovern recently to see a mobile lung cancer unit designed to reduce high rates of the disease in West Virginia. The Prevent Cancer Foundation received a $25,000 grant from the foundation.

He said the project aimed to take "early detection technology on the road." He stressed that "I remember learning about the statistics of how big a difference an early detection can, what a big difference it can make, as opposed to waiting till as a symptomatic or you find it as a result of not being well, you know, your options are far fewer and the outcomes are not nearly as positive as early detection."

His mother was treated for years for breast cancer and died when he was in his teens, and others in his family have been impacted by the disease. He told NPR he's optimistic about what he's learned, "so, yeah, they're crummy, sad stories, but wow, you know, you hear the really uplifting good stories, too. And that comes from, you know, a lot of hard work, and a lot of funding, and a lot of things by a lot of people."

Capito worked in finance, and continues to serve on boards in his home state. He says the club helps build relationships among spouses that are more difficult to develop now because fewer spouses and families are based in Washington, D.C., with more opting to continue their own careers and raise families in their home states and districts.

Another spouse raising awareness is Martha Hill, a lawyer and wife of Arkansas Republican French Hill. In her state the problem is the lack of specialized care for cancer patients, and many have to travel to Texas or Oklahoma.

"So if someone, particularly in rural Arkansas, is diagnosed with cancer, they have to travel for cutting edge cancer, not only research, involvement in clinical trials, and treatment."

She's been working for seven years to designate a National Cancer Institute facility at the Rockefeller Cancer Institute at the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences. That designation would unlock more resources, clinical trials and state of the art treatments.

Hill stresses there needs to be a greater focus on cancer diagnoses unique to the region. "We know the incidence of both colon and lung cancer is higher in the Delta along the Mississippi River in rural Arkansas. And so they're really looking at research, really looking at why that is, and how best to to curb the incidence of cancer along those areas."

Group has spillover effect — bridging lawmakers from across aisle

Hill's husband serves on different committees than Jim McGovern, but the two lawmakers met because of their wives' work on cancer prevention.

"What's wonderful about the congressional club and this program is that it does foster connections on a bipartisan basis amongst spouses," Hill says.

McGovern also told NPR when it comes to raising issues that come out of the club with their lawmakers at home, "I absolutely believe that there is a lot of soft diplomacy going on here."

The Congressional Families Program doesn't weigh in on legislation or lobby, but regularly sounds out updates to congressional club members with information each month about various forms of cancer, signs to watch out for, and steps to promote wellness.

Hill's father had prostate cancer and mother in law died of breast cancer. She stresses everyone needs to take their health into their own hands.

"Just have, you know, have all those moles looked at once a year and have your colonoscopies and go to your mammograms and go to your PCP when you need to. It's really important."

At the April event in Washington, Garamendi consoled an emotional spouse whose learned that day that a close family member succumbed to cancer.

"She's a Republican I'm a Democrat. And I just held her in my arms for a very long time. We're like that. People don't know it."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.