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In aftermath of Komen funding flap, fewer sign up for race (Detroit Free Press)

Published May 20, 2012, by the Detroit Free Press.

By Ellen Creager, Detroit Free Press Staff Writer

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Published: 05.20.12| Updated: 05.21.12

Walk or stay home?

As the Detroit Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure approaches Saturday, women are struggling with torn loyalties in the wake of the Planned Parenthood funding controversy.

"This year, I am going to be walking in the race but also handing out stickers saying, 'I stand with Planned Parenthood,' " said Irene Swerdlow-Freed, 56, of West Bloomfield, a breast cancer survivor who has walked most years since 2006. "I do have friends who are not walking in the race this year and who are not willing to donate."

With less than a week to go before the race, team participation is lagging, with 600 teams signed up for the local event compared with last year's 700. Race officials declined to reveal how many individuals have registered. Last year, there were 30,500 paid participants.

"We are hoping for comparable numbers or better, but we know we face some challenges," said Maureen Meldrum, Komen Detroit executive director.

The trouble began in January, when the national Komen headquarters in Dallas abruptly announced it would stop funding Planned Parenthood's breast health services. After a firestorm of criticism, it reversed its policy. But the damage was done.

Some recent Race for the Cure events have reported a decline in the number of participants. Lansing's race last month was down 28%. Boise, Idaho, fell 37%. Salt Lake City was down 25%.

In Detroit, the race faces both the challenge from the controversy and the fact that this year it falls on Memorial Day weekend, when many people go on vacation.

"We know that at a national level we stumbled into an arena where we didn't belong," Meldrum said. "But we are only focused on breast cancer. In Detroit, that focus never wavered."

Different paths

Kimberly Lifton won't walk in the Detroit race, even though her grandmother died of the disease and her mom is a 20-year breast cancer survivor.

She said she is still furious at the Komen foundation even though it reversed its position.

"Every single year I have walked or sponsored someone. But this year, I just said, 'Sorry, I hope you understand, but I can't do this.' I will make a donation to another breast cancer cause," said Lifton, 50, of Huntington Woods.

Donna Stoner has also made a decision. She is 100% committed to the race and will work in the Survivor Café on race day at Comerica Park.

"I'm not sidetracked by what happened this year at all. I have friends who are sidetracked by it, but maybe because I have been involved with Komen in Detroit, I know where we give the money, and I wonder what would happen if we weren't here," said Stoner, 60, of Grosse Pointe Farms, who is a breast cancer survivor.

Then there's Swerdlow-Freed, who chose the middle path.

"I understand women's anger, but I hope we can move beyond this," she said. "I guess I'd hope women will participate in the race and also in some way wear a T-shirt or sticker that says they also support Planned Parenthood."

Fallout across state

The three women are a microcosm of the emotion whirling around the 21st annual Race for the Cure in Detroit.

Around the state, other Race for the Cure events have seen fallout from the controversy.

Lansing's race was April 29. In 2011, it had 6,300 registered participants. This year, it had 4,500. However, donations are at 75% of their $200,000 goal and still coming in, and sponsorships rose 20% this year, said Chris Pearson, executive director for Komen Mid-Michigan.

A few days before the race, in the middle of the night, a vandal ripped down 1,000 pink ribbons adorning Lansing streets. Volunteers quickly put new ones up.

"I would not have changed one thing about the day, even if it was to get more participants," Pearson said. "The people who were there were enthusiastic and supportive."

Kalamazoo's race is today. As of Wednesday, registration was not matching last year's 2,200 participants, but "we are hanging in there pretty close to last year," said Jenny Miner, executive director for Komen Southwest Michigan. Fund-raising will continue for a month after the race.

Now, as the Detroit race approaches, some people are enthusiastic. Some are quietly not signing up. Others are vocal supporters or opponents. Others just feel bad.

"For me, (the incident) was as if Komen was saying, 'We are not going to offer breast cancer screening or assistance to women who may consider abortion,' " Swerdlow-Freed said. "There is a wonderful T-shirt out there that says 'Keep Politics Out of my Bra.' Both of these organizations have spent so much time helping women, they should keep doing that."

After 10 years of supporting Race for the Cure, Lifton is so angry at Komen that she actually threw away all her race T-shirts. She said she will boycott the race and has sought out other breast cancer organizations to help -- Breast Cancer Action and City of Hope.

Still, she's upset she has to do it.

"I didn't even know that Komen gave money to Planned Parenthood," she said. "It would have made me like them better. I always questioned how they did things. But I love the fact that they put pink on the map. I believe the Komen foundation has a lot to do with the reason people live longer with breast cancer today, and I will always support that. But I will cut off any financial support or participation, because I don't think this mistake is undoable."

Millions raised in city

Since the first Race for the Cure in Detroit in 1992, more than $21 million has been raised to fight breast cancer in metro Detroit.

It has never had an application for funding from Planned Parenthood, said Meldrum. Just last year, the race raised $2.3 million. Komen currently funds $1.47-million worth of projects to bring breast health to underserved women.

That is what drives Stoner to maintain her hearty support for Komen.

Stoner, who had breast cancer 18 years ago, has been involved with the race since 1995. She is chairman of the Survivor Café on race day, a tent with coffee, goodie bags and hugs for women fighting breast cancer or who have survived the disease.

When she compares the benefit of the race with Komen's political woes, her choice is clear.

"I suppose I think every organization will have a hiccup from time to time, and this has been ours," she said. "I just focus on what we're doing. ... I see very, very young women with bald heads at the race. I think, 'Oh, my God, this is what the race is all about.' "

Even Planned Parenthood, the unwitting character in the drama, has been affected, said Desiree Cooper, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Mid and South Michigan.

"We feel sad that the controversy may ultimately affect the people that both organizations care about most -- those who are fighting breast cancer," she said.

Contact Ellen Creager: 313-222-6498 or ecreager@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter, @ellencreager

More Details: Race for the Cure

The 21st annual Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure is Saturday on the grounds of Comerica Park in downtown Detroit. It is sponsored by the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute.

• There are two events: a 5K run /walk and a 1-mile walk.

• Register at www.karmanos.org /detroitraceforthecure through Wednesday. It's $35 for ages 18-64 and $17 for ages 6-17 and ages 65 and up. It's also possible to register in person at various sites around Detroit, or on race day at Comerica Park; see the website for details.

• On race day, the site opens at 7 a.m.; the opening ceremony is at 8 a.m.; the races start at 9 a.m.

• The event includes the Survivor Café for breast cancer survivors, entertainment and children's activities.

More Details: The controversy

In late January, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation announced it would cease funding Planned Parenthood as a result of changes to its granting process.

Komen said the decision was based on recent internal changes that barred the foundation from giving to organizations under investigation.

Planned Parenthood, which provides breast examinations and related care to thousands of women unable to afford health care, was under investigation by U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., who was trying to determine whether the organization uses federal funds for abortions, which is not permitted.

The announcement set off a firestorm of protest. Critics charged that Komen decided to terminate the funding under pressure from anti-abortion activists -- a charge Komen founder Nancy Brinker denied.

Days later, the foundation reversed its decision and apologized to Planned Parenthood. Since then, at least five top Komen officials have resigned.

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