RALEIGH — Nine days before the Susan G. Komen foundations June 9 Race for the Cure, registration for the popular fundraiser for breast cancer research was off about 15 percent from the same point last year.
Leaders of the Komen affiliate for the eastern half of the state said its unclear whether the dip resulted from the controversy early this year over the national Komen foundations short-lived decision to curtail grants to Planned Parenthood for breast screening for under- and uninsured women.
Were not sure if its the down economy or whether the Planned Parenthood thing has something to do with it, said Kathy Burns, interim director of the Komen N.C. Triangle affiliate. Its really difficult to tell, but were beefing it up and doing everything we can to get the word out.
Organizers of Komen events across the country have reported declines in fundraising and participation since the Planned Parenthood dispute in February. Last month, participation in the Komen Triad Race for the Cure in Winston-Salem was off about 40 percent from last year, a decrease the director of the local Komen affiliate there attributed in part to the controversy, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
Now in its 16th year, the Triangle Race for the Cure is the largest footrace in North Carolina. Last year, it drew 25,000 people and raised nearly $2 million for Komens efforts to fight breast cancer.
Burns said her group was still shooting for $2 million from this years race, and hoped that registrations would pick up in the days leading up to the race next Saturday.
We always have a huge number that register at the last minute, so getting the word out that we need people to step up and register is going to be really important, she said.
Whatever the causes, even a 15 percent drop would create a problem for the N.C. Triangle affiliate, which operates independently in many ways from the national office and relies on the race for the bulk of its annual budget.
Komen funds 19 local initiatives in 29 counties, many aimed at providing breast-related health care to women without insurance or who are under-insured.
Ten of the counties it works in, Burns said, are so-called Tier 1, the poorest counties, and some have mortality rates for breast cancer that are among the nations worst. Women in some of these communities have few or no other options for breast-related health care.
An ongoing fight
Also, many are members of minority populations that are hard to reach without targeted programs such as those that Komen funds for African-American and Latino women, she said.
The five-year survival rate for breast cancer has improved in the past 30 years from 74 percent to 98 percent, in part because of treatments developed with funding from Komen and because more cases are caught early when theyre more treatable, said Raleigh attorney Ted Smyth, president of the local affiliates board of directors.
We havent figured out how to solve the breast cancer problem yet, but we have figured out if you get to patients early, you can save lives, Smyth said. We are on the ground locally, and we have a better view than national about how to get to these communities.
The Komen N.C. Triangle affiliate sends about $400,000 a year to the national office from money it raises here, Burns said, but much more than that comes back in the form of research grants for cutting-edge science. This year, Komen awarded more than $2.4 million in grants to scientists at Duke and UNC for studies related to breast cancer.
The Planned Parenthood problem came in early February when national Komen officials said they would stop nearly all funding to the group. Planned Parenthood charged that Komen had caved under pressure from anti-abortion activists, though it was using the money only for screenings and other aspects of breast health.
A visceral reaction
After a harsh backlash among Komen supporters, the national office reversed the decision within a few days. Still, many supporters remained upset, and the local affiliate fielded angry calls for at least a couple of weeks, Smyth said.
A lot of people had a visceral reaction, and let us know they werent happy with whats going on at national, he said. I think we did a pretty good job of trying to bring them back around and explain that we have things we need to do here in North Carolina, and were pretty much are not associated with what national has been doing and were trying to raise money to help people here in North Carolina.
For the local affiliate, Smyth said, politics plays no role in grant-making decisions. Our criteria and priorities are pragmatic and health-based, he said.
The local affiliate has given money to Planned Parenthood in the past, but hadnt received a grant application from the group this year or last, Byrd said. In 2010, it turned down an application from Planned Parenthood because it simply didnt make the cut under criteria that had nothing to do with politics, she said.
Smyth said it would have no problem awarding grants to the group in the future.
Wed like to think we have a pretty good relationship with them, he said. Were both trying to solve the same problem, but we go about it in slightly different ways, because were focusing on one disease and they have a lot of things theyre trying to do.
The Komen N.C. Triangle affiliate has been expanding quickly, from 13 counties just four year ago. It has plans to eventually cover more than 50 counties in the eastern half of the state, he said.
Next year, the group plans to start a second fundraising Race for the Cure, in Wilmington in early March.