Body Politics

Body Politics

By: Jennifer Garrett 

Breast cancer does not care if you voted for Scott Walker. It does not mind if you missed Mass last week or if you never pay your parking tickets. It likes Democrats as much as Republicans, saints as much as sinners. It does not affiliate, discriminate or take sides.

But it does, we have learned, stir controversy.

Susan G. Komen for the Cure had operated largely above the fray, both locally and nationally, for most of its thirty-year history. However, tensions had been brewing in parts of the country over funding of programs at Planned Parenthood sites even before things came to a head earlier this year. That is when the national organization found itself in a media maelstrom for cutting and then days later restoring funding for breast cancer programs at Planned Parenthood clinics.

The debacle had obvious political overtones, although opinions vary on the exact motivations for the organization’s actions. What is certain is that pro-lifers and pro-choicers alike found themselves questioning loyalties to the group that has, since its inception, funneled nearly $2 billion into the fight against breast cancer.

Also unknown is how—or how much—the controversy will affect the research funding and local affiliates like Susan G. Komen for the Cure South Central Wisconsin. Like the majority of Komen affiliates, which are independently run and support local breast cancer programming in their own service areas, Komen SCW does not fund any Planned Parenthood programming. Planned Parenthood has not even requested funding from Komen SCW for more than a decade.

Yet Komen SCW executive director Michelle Heitzinger understands that many people do not understand the relationship between the local affiliates and the national organization. She also realizes that they may incorrectly assume that Komen SCW supports Planned Parenthood either directly through local grants or indirectly through dues paid to the national organization. Neither is true.

Heitzinger hopes the silver lining in the media scrutiny is the opportunity to clarify the relationship between the national Komen organization and its affiliates and to spotlight the impact of Komen SCW.

As an affiliate, Komen SCW has to send twenty-five percent of its earnings back to the national grants program. Heitzinger points out that none of that goes to salaries or overhead at the national organization—it’s strictly for research. And in the past fourteen years, $6 million in research funds—five times what Komen SCW has sent in—has come back to the University of Wisconsin and the Medical College of Wisconsin.

The remaining seventy-five percent, which last year totaled more than $708,000, stays in the affiliate’s service area. Local grantees are much what one would expect and include groups such as the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation and the Madison and Dane County Wisconsin Well Woman Program.

The Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation, for example, uses a Komen grant to offer ten-week “B-Smart” programs, which provide stress management and relaxation training to women with breast cancer. Two of the 2011 B-Smart series were offered in the Allied neighborhood through a partnership with the Allied Drive Community Center.

The Madison and Dane County Wisconsin Well Woman Program used funding to continue the SASSY (Save a Sister—Save Yourself) initiative that uses incentives (such as refer a friend, get a $50 coupon to a hair salon) to increase breast health education and cancer screening for uninsured African American women. It worked: SASSY saw a sixty percent increase in screenings last year.

And this year’s grantee, Access Community Health Centers, is using its resources to increase the number of low-income women receiving recommended mammogram screenings. The goal is to reach 1,200 women and enroll those eligible in the Well Woman Program, which includes case management and outreach services for patients scheduled for mammograms and outreach to patients who have not scheduled their screenings.

Yet the funded programs cover a lot more ground than just breast exams and mammograms. Komen SCW also supports the Wisconsin Well Women Program’s Treatment Access Fund, which provides financial assistance to cover expenses such as rent and other bills. That way women won’t forgo chemotherapy because they worry about missing shifts at work or can’t schedule appointments because their phones have been turned off.

Then there is the Monona Public Library, which received funding to create a Susan G. Komen health and wellness collection of books, DVDs and other resources. The collection is available throughout Dane County via interlibrary loan, and two satellite collections are housed at survivor support organizations Gilda’s Club and Breast Cancer Recovery. Information services coordinator Toni Streckert and other library employees also tote a portion of the collection to the Race for the Cure, and it’s available for other event organizers, something Heitzinger says is critical to successful grant programs.

“She takes it on the road because access is still the issue,” Heitzinger explains, noting that libraries are the primary information source for many low-income individuals.

Heitzinger remains confident. She says the local race has not lost any sponsors to the controversy and as of April had added six more. Yet when she considers the impact Komen SCW has had—$4.3 million over fifteen years—she acknowledges that there is a lot at risk.

Heitzinger points specifically to the Treatment Access Fund, which would be vulnerable if it lost the support of Komen SCW, the fund’s only patron. “The Department of Public Health doesn’t have funds like that. There just isn’t anyone else to fill our void,” she says, adding that any backlash “is going to hurt women right here.”

While some might write off the whole debacle as politics as usual, breast cancer is anything but for those it affects. “I, personally, am concerned that Komen, as a national organization, made a women’s health issue into a political one,” says Nina Miller, director of Breast Cancer Recovery. Also a Komen SCW grantee (though not this year), BCR offers programming, including the popular Infinite Boundaries Retreats, to promote emotional healing after a breast cancer diagnosis.

“I do believe that the local affiliate has done an amazing job of carrying out their mission to save women’s lives,” Miller adds. “I have nothing but positive things to say about the staff of the local affiliate and I believe that the community would suffer if there was a significant reduction in funds available to support the programs that Komen supports.”

Streckert echoes those sentiments, noting that a lot hangs in the balance of this year’s race performance, which will determine available grant funding for 2013.

“My concern is really that there are people who will suffer because of reduced funding if [others] stay away from the race because they do not look beyond the headlines and realize what is happening at the local level … if they don’t recognize the amazing, transformative things Komen has done … particularly this Komen.”