It's Race for the Cure season in many parts of the U.S. The signature fundraisers of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation draw crowds of men, women and children dressed in pink to city streets around the nation each year.
The national breast cancer charity's decision to cut — and then restore — funding to Planned Parenthood created a firestorm early this year. The decision generated heated debate and led to the resignation of a number of the organization's top leaders.
Now, some local affiliates are feeling the impact of the controversy as well. While some cities are reporting Race for the Cure turnout in line with previous years, others are not.
In Tucson, Ariz., runners and walkers poured across the starting line of the Southern Arizona Susan G. Komen Race for the cure on Sunday. The walkers created waves of pink — the color of breast cancer awareness — with their pink T-shirts, pink ribbons and pink signs saying "Save the Tatas."
There were no protest signs, but there were fewer racers than usual: about 7,000 this year, compared with 10,000 in 2011 — a 25 percent drop.
Glen Caron walked with his wife and baby to support a co-worker with breast cancer. Like some other walkers, Caron was oblivious to the controversy. "We don't follow politics too much, so ... we're just focused on a cure for cancer. And this is our small part that we can do," Caron says.
Others, like Kay Chambers, were quick to respond when asked about the controversy. Chambers says she supports both Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Planned Parenthood.
"I think they're both important agencies and have great services for people. And it doesn't change my mind about the walk," Chambers says. "It doesn't change my mind about the purposes of the Komen folks. But it's just too bad that it had to work out that way."
Ofie Gonzales. who is undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, joined the walk in a wheelchair pushed by her family. She says she's "disgusted" with the way Komen handled the Planned Parenthood issue.
"I didn't think they thought about it clearly," Gonzales says. "So, I think they just ... made a boo-boo."
People who were upset enough to withdraw, of course, didn't show up Sunday. Amarie Whetton, part of a women's health group from Raytheon Missile Systems, says fewer people raced on her group's team this year.
"Yeah, we did have a hard time getting people. We had to bring in people from the Susan G. Komen foundation to come in and talk at work to get them to sign up," Whetton says.
Jamie Leopold, director of the Southern Arizona Komen chapter, is the one doing the talking. She says she has spread the word about the fundraiser at local businesses, community groups and churches.
Her chapter depends on the race for 85 percent of its budget and uses those funds for breast cancer treatment, screening and education programs.
Planned Parenthood of Southern Arizona has not asked for money from Komen. But if it had, Leopold says she would have distanced herself from the national organization's original decision.
"We were very clear that you do not intrude on grants guidelines at the local level," Leopold says. "And we would have adhered to our grant-making process — that would have allowed any legitimate nonprofit into our grants competitive process."
Leopold says the national controversy upset people on both sides of the issue locally. And she says that's actually led to some valuable discussions.
"What we actually need in this nation is deliberative dialogue across the lines. I've been listening to people, whether they're pro-life or pro-choice," Leopold says. "They do not want to see politics in women's health."
While participation in the Southern Arizona Komen Race for the Cure is down, it's too early to tell how much actual donations to the group might drop. If there's a significant decline, the Southern Arizona chapter may have to look at cutting some grants.
If that comes to pass, Leopold says mammogram screening and cancer treatment would be the last to go. The first, she says, would be education programs.
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