Compromised?

The Susan G. Komen Foundation is tied up in private interests that run counter to its mission

Editor's Note: Last month an estimated 10,000 runners and walkers participated in the fifth annual Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure along the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront. The Komen Foundation is the most well-known national breast cancer organization, providing funds for research, education, screening and, to some extent, treatment. Its trademark pink ribbons and pink balloons have become one of the country's most recognizable symbols, and the organization has won deserved praise for its dedication.

In the past couple of years, however, dissenting voices have begun to be heard about Komen. For some writers, like Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed, "Welcome To Cancerland" [Harper's magazine]), the "pink kitsch" and sentimental aspects of the "breast cancer industry," as she calls it, are hard to take. Others, like Sharon Batt (Patient No More: The Politics of Breast Cancer) or various feminist breast cancer organizations, say that Komen's many corporate ties have led to a focus that is heavily weighted toward finding a medical cure for breast cancer, and away from environmental conditions causing it. The following story examines Komen's corporate and political ties and their influence on the Komen Foundation's direction.

Participants in the Race for the Cure are often greeted as they cross the finish line with live music, inspirational speakers and acres of colorfully adorned corporate booths. Pink, the chosen color of the international breast cancer movement, is everywhere, on hats, T-shirts, teddy bears and ribbons. A sense of community and camaraderie pervades the celebration by thousands of breast cancer survivors and friends of survivors.

"What's missing is the truth," says Judy Brady of the Toxic Links Coalition in San Francisco. She wants to see a cure for breast cancer as much as anyone, but she and her group, along with several other activist breast cancer groups, have something to point out about the Susan G. Komen Foundation's activities: "There's no talk about prevention except, in terms of lifestyle, your diet for instance. No talk about ways to grow food more safely. No talk about how to curb industrial carcinogens. No talk about contaminated water."

"I really don't think environmental causes of cancer are acknowledged enough," said Dr. C.W. Jameson of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. "It warrants attention so people can make better, more informed choices, as to where they live or what professions they work in." said Jameson, the director of a biennial report on cancer-causing agents published by the Institute of Environmental Sciences.

"Measuring levels of contaminants in the environment is getting better," says Dr. Michael McGeehin, director of the CDC National Center for Environmental Health. But proving the correlation between toxins and cancer can take decades from the time of exposure to the time a tumor might develop, he said.

Several breast cancer activist groups are persistent in their message, yet the circle it travels in remains small, especially when compared with that of the Komen Foundation and its founder, Nancy G. Brinker. Now the U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, Brinker is the E.F. Hutton of the breast cancer world — when she speaks, anyone who's anyone listens.

Brinker relies on the blockbuster PR value of the 5K Race for the Cure. The year-round calendar of cancer walks that draw grief-stricken yet hopeful patients and their loved ones, along with a fawning media, preserve Brinker and her group's image as being on the side of the average American woman tragically afflicted with breast cancer.

So most people would be shocked to find that the Komen Foundation helped block a meaningful Patients' Bill of Rights for the women it has purported to serve since the group began in 1982.

Despite proclaiming herself before a 2001 Congressional panel as a "patient advocate for the past 20 years," demanding access to the best possible medical care for all breast cancer patients, Brinker, the Komen Foundation and its allies lobbied against the consumer-friendly version of the Patients' Bill of Rights in 1999, 2000 and 2001, Federal Election Records show. Brinker then trumpeted old friend George W. Bush in August 2001 for backing a "strong" Patients' Bill of Rights, while almost all other patient advocates felt betrayed.

Brinker's support of Bush's position should come as no surprise, since the President had nominated Brinker for the Hungary ambassador post less than one business quarter earlier, at the end of May 2001. The President also no doubt helped toast Brinker's Congressional approval on Aug. 3, 2001, less than 24 hours after the House version of the Patients' Bill of Rights, dubbed "the HMO bill of rights" by critics, passed on Aug. 2, 2001.

In 1999, 2000 and 2001, dramatically different versions of the Patients' Bill of Rights were introduced. Critics say that both versions would have done little to provide universal coverage for the tens of millions of uninsured.

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