OPINION: The big business of breast cancer — How to better support the cause

Breast cancer ribbon made of money on a pink background
Graphic by Eloise Magoncelli

When I was in elementary school, I annually walked in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure with my mom and grandmother. My grandma is a breast cancer survivor, and every year, she showed up in a pink baseball cap and pink outfit, ready to conquer the 3.1-mile parade around downtown Columbus

Despite how little I was, it was easy to see how much the day meant to my grandma. Every time we crossed the finish line, her eyes brimmed with tears. She beat cancer because of events like these that fund new research and catalyze innovative treatment. 

But it wasn’t as easy for me to understand why we suddenly stopped this yearly tradition. My grandmother opted to invest in local organizations rather than Komen’s massive national agency. I only remember it being something about the way the Komen Foundation was spending money. 

Prompted by the unavoidable deluge of pink during this October’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I started thinking about our sudden abandonment of the Komen Race. 

In 2012, Nancy Brinker, former CEO and founder of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, made an annual salary of $684,000, according to CNBC. They also reported that President and CEO of Charity Navigator Ken Berger believed Brinker’s salary to be “extremely high.” 

Berger further elaborated: “This pay package is way outside the norm … It’s about a quarter of a million dollars more than what we see for charities of this size. … This is more than the head of the Red Cross is making for an organization that is one-tenth the size of the Red Cross.” 

Additionally, the Foundation faced harsh criticism for its use of funding. According to their Consolidated Financial Statements and Supplemental Schedules from a decade ago, roughly 21 percent of their expenses went toward research. While the remaining funding supports program services like health screening services, treatment services and public health, the 21 percent statement still sparked alarm. 

These are certainly all worthy initiatives in theory, but umbrella categories like “public health education” scare donors. It’s difficult to see a tangible impact from their dollars if they are going to awareness campaigns, for instance. 

There is no doubt much of Susan G. Komen’s work is valuable. It’s ranked No. 76 on Forbes’ 100 Largest U.S. Charities List of 2018, and the scope of its influence and power has pushed breast cancer awareness to the forefront of our national dialogue. 

However, there may be worthier charities to support, ones perhaps with more than a two-star rating for its financials on Charity Navigator. If you’re giving, you want to know that your hard-earned money is being put to great use. 

To that point, the right answer isn’t simply buying the abundance of pink merchandise on the market. It’s often dubious and unclear if sales from pink apparel are really going towards the fight for a cure. For instance, “The Dick’s Sporting Goods website notes, in fine print, that some of the companies selling the pink products it offers do not donate any money to breast cancer charities,” according to The New York Times. It’s not okay to commercialize a deadly disease. 

Instead, it’s always best to support locally, where there is heartfelt, viable impact. Strive to be a little more like my grandmother. She’s an incredible chef and dedicates her days to making soups and delivering them to cancer patients of the James Cancer Hospital

Additionally, in place of our annual walk, she now supports Pelotonia, a biking fundraiser that has raised over $184 million for cancer research over 10 years, with “100 percent of every dollar raised by its participants to cancer research at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center — Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute.” My grandma spends the morning of the bike ride on the side of the route. She double-fists obnoxiously loud pink cowbells and rings them persistently and pridefully.  

Another great way to support the fight against breast cancer is by listening and leading by example. By making breast self-exams and yearly mammograms a habit, we normalize the conversation about breast health and make life-saving prevention less taboo. 

We shouldn’t be throwing money away on pink merchandise if it isn’t whole-heartedly supporting the cause. Instead, we should be supporting credible, local organizations, and we should be supporting patients and survivors in our communities. 

Cancer doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care who you are, or where you come from — and it has probably affected every single one of our lives. Research, prevention and treatment for breast cancer is far too important of a cause not to prioritize. 

Georgia Tuckerman CM ’22 is from Columbus, Ohio. She’s passionate about government and foreign affairs and enjoys playing tennis and drinking La Croix.  

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