Me and Susan G.

I walked in my first Race for the Cure in Dallas in 1996.

By then, my hair was growing back dark and a little wavy after chemo. I met my new friends, fellow breast cancer survivors, and we walked together. We wore Komen T-shirts and hats and plastered ourselves with signs about other friends — either “in honor of” or “in memory of.”

At the end of the race, we gathered close to North Park Mall. (Malls and shopping are important in Dallas. I knew a woman whose mother was buried in an adjacent cemetery, overlooking North Park Mall and its big Neiman-Marcus store. Neiman’s had always been her mother’s favorite place in the world, my friend said, and she was sure her mother rested happily there.)

That day was beautiful and cloudless and inspiring. It happened at that time, early in my cancer survivorship, when I found safety and power in the sheer numbers of other survivors. Together, sweaty and enthusiastic and loud, we were tough and strong and gutsy. It would take more than a malignant bunch of rogue terrorist cells to defeat us.

I didn’t appreciate, then, how wily and relentless cancer was, how it positioned itself like a sharpshooter on the nearby cemetery hill, picking off this survivor, then another, then another. How it turned the “in honor of” tributes into “in memory of,” how so many parade bystanders became participants in later years. There was no safety in our numbers — just the illusion of safety.

Instead, I watched the stage as a group of survivors in pink caps danced and sang to “I Can See Clearly Now” — a song I would never listen to again in quite the same way. One woman, in cap and T-shirt, sang looking up at the blue sky with tears streaming down her cheeks.

A few years passed and we moved to Austin. The only Race for the Cure march I walked in must have been in ’98 or ’99. I went with my friend, Martha, whose cancer was temporarily in remission, and my daughter, who was in high school then.

Along the way, my daughter spoke to another girl from her high school. The girl’s mother had also had breast cancer, my daughter said. I asked how she was doing and my daughter muttered something in a low voice I couldn’t hear. Later, I asked again about her friend’s mother and she told me the mother had died.

More years passed. Martha died, as did most of the other members of my support group. But Komen flourished, spreading pink ribbons everywhere, from professional football teams’ uniforms to the lapels of millions of jackets to cosmetics, perfumes, big buttons. Every October, I came to feel, promised a national outbreak of ribbons, big smiles and determined mass perkiness.

Some of my survivor friends — like Cancer Bitch — loathed Komen for its corporate ties, relentless branding and failure to focus on cancer prevention. I was more guardedly neutral, but disliked the foundation’s simplistic insistence that early detection would always save lives. In the meantime, treatments improved somewhat and more women were diagnosed with early stages of cancer that might never threaten their lives. But 40,000 women a year still died from breast cancer in this country, as marches grew larger and millions of dollars flowed into research.

You know the rest of the story. Komen withdrew its funding of mammograms at Planned Parenthood earlier this week. Then, after a firestorm of controversy, it backed down and reinstated funding. This is a foundation that recognizes a PR and financial debacle when it happens.

So, we’re back to the status quo — except we’re not. Because of right-wing politics, an organization dedicated to women’s health was willing to ignore the needs of poor women, until it became too uncomfortable to continue.

You can’t forget something you know, can you? It’s like a cancer diagnosis, marking you forever. It’s like hearing “I Can See Clearly Now” in a different way and never being able to go back to your original interpretation.

Speaking for myself, I’ve marched in my last Komen march and given the group my last dime. I can see clearly now and I’m not about to forget.

(Copyright 2012 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read a related post, your bumper sticker and your attitude offend me

27 comments… add one
  • Claire Saxton Link

    I support Breast Cancer Action’s focus on systemically reducing toxics in our environment (and in products we use everyday) and looking at true prevention of breast cancer – how do we slow the epidemic. They also do some spreading the word about actions individuals can take that follow the precautionary principle, like not cooking/microwaving food in plastic. (This was even recommended by the President’s Cancer Council, but there has never been a national awareness campaign about this!) To me, the non-corporate systemic focus of their mission is the key. We will never be able to prevent breast cancer individually. True prevention must come systemically.

  • I’m right there with you, Ruth. Excellent post.

  • Cindy D. Link

    I “met” you Ruth via an article you wrote for the Austin American Statesman about how much you hated pink “stuff.” I had just had my cancer surgery and you expressed how I felt. You’ve done that for me a lot over the last years. Today, you have done it again. I’ve had misgivings about the Komen group for several years. Now, I know that my insticts were right all along. On another blog people were discussing how long SK would last now that their statistics for where the money goes, have gone public. The general consensus is that the organization is toast. Good riddance.

  • Marjorie Link

    The very idea that breast cancer has been morphed into a brand is beyond repulsive. As always, I enjoy reading your thoughts. Thank you!

  • Right on….my mother is a breast cancer survivor…and we’ve felt that the Komen group just wanted more money with little to show for it. I for one am glad they made this stumble so people would look into any charity they give to.
    It’s not just them either, we gave to a Juvenile Diabetes research group for Forty Years as my husband was a type 1 diabetic. We came to the conclusion that it was more profitable to maintain than cure….

  • Ruth, thank you for your well thought out story, and for sharing your journey as well. I wanted to say as a Pro Life Advocate I did not support SBK choice to cut funding, I believe the zealous fanatics have forgotten the point of what it is we do and why, just as some have forgotten what SBK is and does. I do not ever want to see anyone lose their life over anything, but to cut off funding because of a pro choice pattern, is equally wrong, the ends will never justify the means, ever. I am hopful people will learn from you and others as they share their stories of life and survival, thanks and God Bless.

  • I too am with you. Cross fingers, and knock wood, I haven’t had breast cancer–yet, but many women I love have. I bought pink ribbons and been glad to do in. But now–my bucks are headed to Planned Parenthood. Thanks for stating this so doggone good!

  • Dear Ruth,

    As a fledgling blogger, I often turn to your site before undertaking one of my own and when I saw that you had written about the Komen effort to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood, I responded out loud with an u uh from your first sentence. I respect your honesty and humor always. Your take on this issue was on the money. It’s time that Americans acknowledge that our so called “safety net” is neither safe nor strong. Unlike Mitt, we don’t have the luxury of ignoring those who are poor.

  • Sydbet–amen.

  • Marla Link

    Well said, Ruth. It’s a too familiar pattern: organizations turn inward and neglect what they’re all about, becoming more preoccupied with their own needs and survival than on their mission. So, this will either be a wake-up call or the beginning of the end. Regardless, Komen’s pink bubble has burst.

  • Jean Link

    Thank you for your beautiful post. I am furious still about this and have decided to never again support Komen. The organization made the decision to politicize themselves when they hired outspoken anti-choice people to represent their group. They are no longer a credible, politically neutral fundraising organization whose focus should be only on cancer.

  • Karen Link

    My mother’s obituary was already sent to the paper with a “donate to Komen reference.” She nursed a mother-in-law, sister-in-law and this daughter thru breast cancer. I know she did her part from the heavens to stir up the firestorm that got this horrible decision reversed. We need to continue to be vigilant and KNOW we have power to influence this stuff, and next time, a decision like that won’t get out of the board room because people will know what’s right trumps the right.

  • Linda Cox Link

    I’m with you too on this one Ruth. I was involved in bringing Komen back to Austin, but my breast cancer donations and activities will no longer go to them.

  • I agree with you – completely.

  • I absolutely agree with you. Now that I know more about the organization, my donations will go to different cancer charities. My husband is fighting lung cancer, so I need to support that cause–as the 2nd most diagnosed(to skin cancer) and the most deadly of cancers. Thank you for this excellent post!

  • Smart Mouth Broad Link

    I have a view from the other side of the desk. I manage a breast surgery practice where I see Komen funds at work everyday. In our area, (Palm Beach County), Planned Parenthood doesn’t provide mammograms. They perform breast exams and refer patients to Komen supported facilities, as any physician can do. I’m not suggesting that Planned Parenthood isn’t providing a valuable service to women’s health. They are. But I urge you and your readers not to withdraw your support of an organization which is doing good work to save lives. Komen not only funds mammograms but other diagnostics as well. They also fund the biopsies that diagnose the cancer. Would I like to see them do more? Of course. But they can’t do it without your help. I’m afraid that if we take a closer look at any charitable organization, we will find policies with which we don’t agree. Please don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

    Smart Mouth Broad.

  • Sheryl Link

    I’m with you, Ruth.I don’t care that they reversed their decision. The fact is that they made it in the first place and caused an unnecessary uproar and exposed themselves for what they are . Buh-bye.

  • I think they made a horrific mistake, one that will plague the organization for years. That said, decisions are made by people. I would imagine that the people who made this decision *might not* be at Komen for very long. In their place, new people will come in. Perhaps Komen can still do some good. It’s hard to say. Yet with so many causes to support, it seems prudent to pick the ones that have consistently made the right decisions along with way.

  • I am suspicious when charitable organizations become so huge and so corporate. I don’t like it when health issues become politicized.

  • The whole thing is just shameful. I’m only afraid that they have bamboozled people into thinking they’ve done the right thing now, when all they have done is weasled about. Hopefully people are savvy enough to see through it…

  • It’s a slippery slope the moment an org or a person loses sight/grasp of their intention. All the pink-ness, somehow, symbolized a loss of connection to the real cause. Somehow, it was only about the pink-ness, and getting more of it. But what happened to the true intention? I wonder if many inside komen are also asking that same question.

  • I agree with Claire. I do not understand why these organizations do not focus on prevention, rather than cure, now that we understand carcinogens surround us. Why don’t they embrace prevention? Really go for it. SPELL IT OUT. Don’t use XYZ cosmetics because they contain estrogen mimics that are believed to cause cancer. Watch what you eat: make sure it has no pesticide residue. Make war on carcinogens. Get them out of the environment. Please explain it to me, Ruth. I loved your passion in this post. It makes me sad that our country cannot get it together and PREVENT cancer. Then we wouldn’t need a cure.

  • The whole Komen incident is so sad. It’s amazing how basic healthcare issues have just become so divisive.

  • Thank you, Ruth. In solidarity…

  • Exactly.

  • Good minnorg! I heard the discussion today on Counter-Spin and was thrilled to finally hear of your website and efforts to combat pinkwashing . I suppose it affirmed a vibe I’ve been getting for a couple of years. However, I am yet again appalled by the denial and dismissal of the link between abortion and breast cancer. You even say yourself, In the absence of scientific consensus we need to adopt the highest standards: when in doubt leave it out. Now since there IS doubt, when does a group at the forefront of the discussion like BCAction begin to demand that we recognize the link and insist that more be done to make people aware of it. And when you are done with the perfume awareness, maybe we could see an article on the connection between the Komen giant and its founder’s seat on the board of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, who of course receives money from Komen and its affiliates, and is America’s largest abortion provider. If there is even the slightest chance that abortion and breast cancer are linked, would you not want to exploit it? Please don’t hesitate! Demand more investigation. This whole BCAction endeavour must be fearless! Good luck and keep working hard! Thank you.Peter

  • Marjorie Gallece Link

    Isabella, there is no link. You need look no further than China for strong proof of this. Abortion is actually mandated in China and the rates of abortion are very high. Breast cancer rates are not. If there was a causal relationship, it would be very evident.

    There is no link and there have been studies on all sides wasting linited funding. Exploitation of breast cancer for the anti abortion cause seriously harms both causes. They are separate and should remain that way.

    Many breast cancer survivors, such as myself, are deeply insulted by this inane assertion that detracts from the more serious research as to the environmental causes of this disease.

    Breast Cancer Action and other groups such as NBCC are dedicated to sound science and unraveling the many causes of breast cancer. One thing that is known is that pregnancy at younger ages, such as age 15, can be protective yet I doubt we’ll be seeing that endorsed.

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