State Rep. Julie Stokes is one of those politicians who ran on her experience.
The Kenner Republican’s background as a certified public accountant is the very first fact listed in the bio on her web page. She entered the Legislature in 2013 determined to bring more order, sense and predictability to how Louisiana taxes its residents and businesses, and quickly developed a reputation for burrowing deep into the policy weeds. Had she run for state treasurer last year, as planned, her expertise would surely have been a central focus of her campaign.
But Stokes never made the run, due to a breast cancer diagnosis right before qualifying. So instead of traveling the state campaigning, she underwent chemo and surgery, and thankfully emerged from the ordeal cancer-free.
Now healthy and back at work, Stokes is once again using her personal experience to guide her legislative priorities.
“As you all know, I’m a freshly minted breast cancer survivor,” she said, as she addressed her colleagues on the House Insurance committee late last month. Stokes then proceeded to talk in starkly personal terms about the mammogram she’d had not long before her diagnosis, which didn’t detect the cancer, and learning subsequently that there was more advanced technology available that might have.
She told committee members that if her provider had used more sophisticated 3D technology, “I might have caught it before it spread to lymph nodes and before it upended my life.”
One of the bills Stokes was promoting that day addressed exactly that. House Bill 460 would update the current law requiring that mammograms be covered by insurance, including Medicaid, to make 3D mammograms the minimum standard.
The reception she got could not have been more encouraging. State Rep. Vincent Pierre, D-Lafayette, thanked her for bringing the matter up. State Rep. Greg Cromer, R-Slidell, noted that his wife has also battled cancer, and said he’d like to be added as a co-author. Committee Chairman Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, said he thought everybody would. The bill passed out of the committee unanimously, and has since cleared the full House and is pending in the state Senate.
Stokes had two other related bills on the agenda during that March 28 hearing, both also informed by her newfound knowledge of the subject and her conversations with other survivors.
The committee also approved House Bill 690, which would ensure coverage for subsequent recommended cancer screenings for patients who’ve had bilateral mastectomies. To help make the case, Stokes enlisted Kim Sport, a fellow survivor and a familiar face at the Capitol for her work with United Way, to talk about her own experience not being able to convince her insurance to cover her annual PET scans, even though one such test did detect an unrelated cancer. Stokes noted that she did not go through radiation, so if her cancer recurs she has “one more tool” available to her. That makes such screenings vital, she said.
This bill passed the committee without dissent, sailed through the House, and is awaiting Senate action.
Even before her cancer diagnosis, Julie Stokes was a fighter.
Stokes’ third measure that day, House Bill 689, would guarantee coverage for both male and female cancer patients’ efforts to preserve fertility options before they undergo treatment. It passed the committee 9-3 and is now pending before the House Appropriations Committee.
Suffice it to say that this is not the sort of thing Stokes thought she’d be talking about a year ago, when she waited until the end of a busy legislative session to get the lump she’d felt checked out. But with her experience came a clear sense of urgency.
“To keep this in perspective, 40,000 women a year die from breast cancer. I got really lucky. The one I had, I had about a third of a chance that chemo would kill it,” she said. And while she got a clean bill of health and word that there’s an 85 percent chance the cancer won’t return, “that 15 percent hangs over your head like a dark cloud.”