Sen. Amy Klobuchar Was Diagnosed with Breast Cancer This Year, Had Successful Treatment

"Every day is a gift after you've been through something that's scary like this," Klobuchar tells PEOPLE

Amy Klobuchar
Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Sen. Amy Klobuchar was diagnosed with breast cancer this year and has since recovered, she revealed on Thursday.

The health ordeal, she tells PEOPLE, gave her a renewed appreciation of life's many graces and prompted her to share an important message for other people: Don't forget to take care of yourself.

"I really felt, having talked to doctors and nurses about this, that if I could be helpful in getting a few more people to get a mammogram, it was worth it," she says of why she's sharing her story now.

The Minnesota lawmaker, 61, said in a statement on Medium Thursday morning that she was diagnosed with Stage 1A breast cancer after undergoing a routine mammogram in February.

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In an interview with PEOPLE later Thursday, Klobuchar says she — like too many other people — had been putting off health checkups during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the discovery and treatment of her cancer has underscored the importance of not waiting.

She notes that "one in three Americans have put off routine health exams" and that, according to one survey, "thousands of women have undetected breast cancer."

"When you first find out, for anyone, it's a shock. It's scary," she tells PEOPLE of her own diagnosis.

"At the beginning, you don't know what's going to happen, so that's more frightening," she says. "Then they told me the course of treatment: They would want to see if it was worse than they thought when they do the surgery."

Klobuchar underwent a lumpectomy in her right breast followed by a draining course of radiation that ended in May. "My doctors believe that my chances of developing cancer again are no greater than the average person," she wrote in her statement Thursday.

She kept her treatment private (though, she says, if she had been unable to continue her legislative work she would have spoken up).

"My husband was with me every step of the way," she says of John. He was there early in the mornings to take her to radiation, "keeping his good humor about everything," she says.

Her daughter, Abigail, called "all the time" and came up to Minnesota in June.

It was an uncertain, sometimes frightening, sometimes exhausting period, Klobuchar says. But it gave her time to reflect and brought new purpose around her work, including leading a report investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol attack and passing pandemic relief legislation.

"You just keep going, and I really felt myself the most at the end of the summer," she says.

"Every day is a gift," she tells PEOPLE, "after you've been through something that's scary like this."

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., listens during the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett
Sen. Amy Klobuchar. SUSAN WALSH/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Just recently, Klobuchar says, her family "went on some hikes in northern Minnesota. Those times that maybe before you're kind of thinking, 'When am I going to be done with this? I have stuff to do' — you start appreciating that moment you're in."

In an appearance on Good Morning America Thursday, Klobuchar told Robin Roberts it was "never easy," balancing her diagnosis with her job. She said that she was undergoing radiation just two days after the death of her father. (She told PEOPLE it was a "long goodbye" to her dad, who had Alzheimer's.)

On GMA she told Roberts, who also survived cancer, "I would always think, 'So many people have it harder.' So many people found out about it later or had a more difficult situation with their cancer and were in chemo, like you were."

"In the end," Klobuchar said, "I just have this unbounding gratitude for the people that were there for me, including these incredible doctors and nurses."

Speaking with PEOPLE, Klobuchar recalls how even "perfect strangers who didn't know about this were helpful" — how, as she flew back and forth from Minnesota to Washington, D.C., someone would always offer to help with her luggage without knowing that because of her treatment, she'd been warned about heavy lifting.

For Memorial Day, her nurses gave her a red, white and blue face mask.

"It's a message about being kind to people when you don't know what's going on in their lives," she says.

She ties her own story back to public health.

Amy Klobuchar's husband has coronavirus
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (center) and husband John Bessler with daughter Abigail (left).

"It's easy to put off health screenings, just like I did," she wrote in her statement on Medium. "But I hope my experience is a reminder for everyone of the value of routine health checkups, exams, and follow-through," she wrote. "I am so fortunate to have caught the cancer at an early enough stage and to not need chemotherapy or other extensive treatments, which unfortunately is not the case for so many others."

The American Cancer Society recommends women 45-54 should get annual mammograms, but according to data released by the Centesr for Disease Control and Prevention in June, there was a "sharp decline" in breast cancer screenings during the pandemic.

The CDC reported an 87 percent decline in breast cancer screenings and an 84 percent decline in cervical cancer screenings for women during April 2020 compared with the previous five-year averages for April.

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