Fallout from Komen controversy hurts Race for the Cure

About 5,000 fewer people have registered for the June 3, 2012, Komen Race for the Cure, the group's 5K walk, resulting in about a half-million-dollar drop in pledges. In this photo, participants dance and celebrate at the end of the 2010 event.
Erika Schultz | Seattle Times
About 5,000 fewer people have registered for the June 3, 2012, Komen Race for the Cure, the group's 5K walk, resulting in about a half-million-dollar drop in pledges. In this photo, participants dance and celebrate at the end of the 2010 event.
Posted May 31, 2012, at 9:23 a.m.

SEATTLE — When Gillian Godlewski wanted to support breast-cancer research, she bought a pink Kitchen Aid mixer, pink spatula, pink scraper, pink wallet, pink notepads, pink compact and a pink shirt — all with the Susan G. Komen for the Cure logo.

“Well, if I want that item anyway and the pink donates money, that’s an all-around win, right?” she figured.

Now after the controversy over the national Komen organization’s decision early this year to eliminate breast-screening grants to Planned Parenthood, Godlewski says her pink days are over.

Although Komen quickly reversed itself and is continuing to send money to Planned Parenthood, Godlewski remains angry. Politics, she says, shouldn’t affect such basic women’s health care.

As Seattle’s annual 5K Race for the Cure nears — the year’s big local Komen fundraiser — it appears that many once loyal to the organization have turned away. So far, about 5,000 fewer people have registered for the June 3 event, a drop of 36 percent from last year’s 14,000 race-day participants, said Cheryl Shaw, executive director of Komen’s Puget Sound chapter.

The result is about a half-million-dollar drop in pledges — less money for education, screening and support services for those who can’t afford it.

Registrations for the annual Komen 3-Day for the Cure, a 60-mile walk in September, are down, too.

A sizable decline in race participation is occurring in several cities, organization officials said, with chapters in Seattle, Fort Worth, Detroit and Raleigh, N.C., among the hardest hit.

The national office says programs and the women they serve will suffer.

“We are seeing some signs that people understand the important work that Komen does locally, especially in local communities,” Andrea Rader, national spokeswoman, said in an email. But, she added, “We want them to know that the people who will be hurt by any upset with us are the women we are working so hard to serve.”

Whether there will be significant loss of sales from licensed pink products — a Komen trademark — is unknown and something the national headquarters will continue to study throughout the year, Rader said.

Money from those sales stays with the national organization, and $50 million of the total $472 million raised last year came from corporate sponsorships and marketing. Local chapters rely on the races for much of their funding.

Planned Parenthood funding

The backlash started after the national headquarters announced in late January it would pull funding from Planned Parenthood, which received $680,000 last year from Komen.

The local chapter quickly objected.

On Feb. 2, the local chapter’s Shaw and board President Joni Earl wrote to the national office expressing dismay that national had failed “to consider feedback from the affiliates before taking this action,” calling the decision “misguided,” and asking that national consider the “implications of this policy on women worldwide.”

But for many donors, the damage was done.

Terry Tazioli and his family and friends for years had one of the leading fundraising Seattle teams, Kai’s Italian Connection, which raised about $100,000 over the years.

Started in the 1990s by his sister Kai Leamer after her breast-cancer diagnosis, the team became known for its parties teaming with Italian food, wine and camaraderie — an effective fundraising formula.

Leamer died from cancer in 2002, and another family member died from breast cancer as well. The team continued to grow.

But when Tazioli, a former Seattle Times editor, heard about the decision from Komen’s Dallas headquarters, “disappointed was an understatement,” he said. “I was really angry, but I was really more hurt. I felt a little bit betrayed for all the work we’d done.”

Even with the reversal, Tazioli won’t come back. It’s a matter of trust, he said.

By Komen’s own statistics, when breast cancer is treated early, the five-year survival rate is 98 percent; later detection drops this to 23 percent.

Denying funding to pay for breast examinations is “playing with people’s lives,” Tazioli said.

For many, Komen’s decision mixed politics with the life-or-death issue of women’s health.

The plan to withdraw the Planned Parenthood funding stemmed from Komen’s earlier decision not to fund any agency going through a local, state or federal investigation. A Florida congressman asked that Planned Parenthood be investigated to ensure no federal money is spent for abortions, an investigation women’s groups objected to, calling the claims unfounded.

The national office’s decision “was a surprise on some levels,” said Thalia Syracopoulos, a past board member of the Seattle chapter of the National Organization for Women, who had supported Komen events. “Like most people, we saw the Komen people as providing access to medical care. We felt betrayed. The idea that the foundation was making a decision (like that) … was reprehensible.”

The decision resulted in the resignation of a Komen vice president of public policy and unmasked unspoken discontent among some participants. For years, many enthusiastically supported Komen but felt they no longer identified with what they saw as a pink-ribboned corporate behemoth that even got NFL players, including the Seahawks, to include pink on their uniforms.

“I think it was a very good cause in the beginning but I think they’re more interested in their brand than what their original purpose is. How can you turn your back on any organization that is doing what you support?” asked Karen Boe, of Lake Stevens.

“My feeling is they let politics get in the way of what their mission was,” she said. Like Godlewski, Boe is no longer buying pink-ribboned products.

For some who are angry at Komen, the remedy has been easy.

Many, such as Godlewski, an oil-rig engineer who grew up in Pierce County, donated to Planned Parenthood. West Seattle psychologist Kayla Weiner, who had breast cancer and has participated in the Komen three-day walk, this year is donating to the Breast Cancer Action Center in San Francisco, which looks to environmental causes for breast cancer.

Tazioli and his family have intensified their fundraising efforts toward Kai’s Fund, a scholarship they set up in Leamer’s name, and Gilda’s Club Seattle, a support network of friends and families of those living with cancer.

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