Anna Rachnel is a breast cancer survivor, former public accountant, and writer for The Cancer Culture Chronicles. With her permission, the Pink Ribbon Blues Blog republishes her recent essay “Komen By The Numbers.”
Living with metastatic breast cancer is a bit like playing an evil game of Whack-A-Mole. Chemotherapy, at this point, is more art than science. Tumors come up and tumors go down and you never quite know where they’re going to strike next. You just keep whacking those pesky tumors and if new ones come up, you whack ‘em again, and again, and again. You just hope that you have enough chemotherapy hammers in your arsenal to be able to keep whackin’ ‘em before you lose the game.
In recent months, I’ve been following with interest the debate in the blogosphere, over the Susan G. Komen for the Cure® (“Komen”) lawsuits with respect to apparent trademark violations over other charities using the phrase “for the Cure”. Komen argues that trademarking the phrase, and protecting that trademark through legal strategies, is a form of stewardship of donor funds. Many others see it differently. Indeed, the debate itself is also starting to feel like a game of Whack-A-Mole because as one question comes up, it’s debated by some and whacked by others as Komen offers a superficial response. In turn, the organization’s official statements cause more questions to come up. Whack! And so the game goes on.
If you need to get up to speed on where the debate currently stands, I recommend reading the following articles by Gayle Sulik, author of Pink Ribbon Blues, which also contain links to other news stories and essays on the topic, along with official responses by Komen.
- “The Battle “For The Cure” – The Phrase, That Is.”
- “Poor Pink Goliath“
- Susan G. Komen for the Cure® Sells Out the Pink to Get the Green
There’s no question in my mind that Komen has, and continues to engage in good works, but I fear their stated mission, and their actions are starting to get a little confused. On their website, Komen clearly states that is their mission “to end breast cancer forever”. This mission ties in nicely with the organization’s recent name change to Susan G. Komen for the Cure®. Straight-forward. For. The. Cure.
As a person living with metastatic breast cancer, I clearly have a vested interest in Komen fulfilling their mission; to end breast cancer forever, and more specifically to find me a cure. But is it really that simple? Do Komen’s activities actually support this mission?
In considering this question, I decided to go back to my training as a public accountant, a career that spanned some fifteen years, before I was forced to give it up to focus on my health and on-going treatment for breast cancer. Financial analysis is my thing.
Audited financial statements are available on the Komen website covering years ended March 31st 2004 through 2009. After some pretty intense number-crunching, I was able to get a clearer picture of how Komen allocates it’s donor funds and other revenue, and the amount and type of research they have invested in since they opened their doors in 1982.
First, as a non-profit organization, Komen’s activities are divided into four major Program Services to which donor funds are allocated: (1) Research, (2) Education, (3) Screening and (4) Treatment. The remaining funds go towards administrative and fundraising expenses.
From 2004 to 2009, Komen allocated a total of $1.54 Billion of “Net Public Support and Revenue” of in the following categories: Education 36%; Research 25%, Administration and Fundraising Expenses 22%; Screening 11%, and Treatment 6%. See pie chart below.
Now it’s a question of opinion as to how one might define activities that could possibly result in a “cure” for breast cancer, and it’s a question that was raised by blogger Alicia Staley in her posts, “How do you define the Cure for Cancer?”, and “Lawsuits for the Cure”. For me and the people I know who are in treatment for breast cancer, we understand a “cure” for our disease to mean that we will be completely healed and never have to worry about breast cancer invading our lives ever again.
However, Andrea Rader, corporate spokesperson for Komen, stated in response to Alicia’s Staley’s question;
“Research is just one piece of delivering cures for cancer. Education is critical: even today, many women don’t know they’re at risk for breast cancer, or they continue to believe myths like underwire bras cause cancer (they don’t).”
From this statement, Komen seems to be saying that “cures” for cancer result from other activities, in addition to research. I must have missed that memo. Education, screening and treatment won’t “cure” my cancer. Sure, by being “educated” I might be able to find out more about my particular type of breast cancer. By being “screened” I might be able to see if my cancer has spread. By being “treated” I might be able to keep the cancer I already have under control. But will any of these activities result in me being cured? No. The only hope that my cancer will be cured, is by research and research alone. The only way that breast cancer will be prevented, given that many of those diagnosed have none of the known risk factors, is through research. Indeed, the only way we can “end breast cancer forever” is with research. Education, screening and treatment activities deal with finding and treating cancers we already have, not curing them and not ending breast cancer now or forever. Period.
Spending anything less than the bulk of its resources on research, clearly does not support Komen’s mission of ending breast cancer forever.
In addition to the allocation of funds to other activities besides research, I analyzed how Komen allocates funds within the research category itself. Of the total $1.5 billion raised from 2004-2009, Komen allocated $391 million to their Research program. It costs money to run a research program, in this case $33 million, so $357 million of actual research awards and grants were made. This means that from 2004-2009, Komen only spent 23% of “Net Public Support and Revenue” on actual research, down from the 25% allocated to the research program category.
Analyzing how the research dollars were actually spent and what types of research have been funded was more difficult. Although some of the information is available on the Komen website, the reports provided require the reader to click on a map and go through each country/U.S. state to calculate total expenditures by research type. Here’s what I found.
Since it’s beginnings in 1982, through to 2010, according to its website research map, Komen has invested some $491 million in awards and grants to researchers in the U.S. and around the world. This sounds like a lot money. However, to put this number in context it’s necessary to compare it to “Net Public Support and Revenue” for the same period, which was not available on Komen’s website. From an accounting standpoint, one could calculate an estimate of total ”Net Public Support and Revenue”, using the average figure of 23% allocated to actual research, calculated from the 2004-2009 audited financial statements.
Estimated Total Net Public Support and Revenue for 1982-2010
= Total Research Awards ($491 M) = $2.1 Billion
Average % Research Allocation (23%)
Thus Komen’s total “Net Public Support and Revenue”for 1982-2010 would total somewhere in the order of $2.1 billion. Now I have no way of verifying this number, since Komen does not provide the revenue data for the years prior to 2004, but Komen’s research media sheet, and factoring in operations costs, suggests that my estimates appear to be reasonable;
“Susan G. Komen for the Cure® is the global leader in funding life-saving breast cancer research. Komen for the Cure has invested nearly $1.5 billion in research and community health programs, nearly $465 million of which has gone directly to research. Since funding its first research grant in 1983, the organization’s commitment to research has grown at unprecedented rates.”
I have to wonder how much further we’d be along on the breast cancer research front, had Komen been more generous with their research allocation over the years. At this point it seems prudent to point out that I am not alone in questioning the tactics of this country’s breast cancer fundraisers and research protocols. The National Breast Cancer Coalition states on their website;
“Hundreds of thousands of lost lives justifiably mock our acceptance of the fragmented, siloed, no-end-in-sight strategy currently at work. We couldn’t possibly do worse. The question we ought to be asking ourselves is, “How do we succeed, and what must we do differently in order to?” Over the past eighteen years, despite all of the funding and all of the walks and runs and gala dinners, annual breast cancer deaths in the U.S. have barely budged. They were close to 40,000 then, and they’re close to 40,000 now. If this is our definition of success, we need a new one.”
Further they say;
“It’s time to move beyond awareness to action. It’s time to peel back the pink to see what’s really happening in breast cancer research, treatment, prevention and cure.”
All of this conduct by the United State’s largest breast cancer fundraiser is starting to feel a bit unbecoming of a charitable organization. I can only hope that going forward, Komen do indeed honor their “organization’s commitment to research” and that their research allocation does grow “at unprecedented rates”, as they state in their research media sheet.
Let’s end this game of Whack-A-Mole. Change tactics and allocate more money to breast cancer research. Perhaps then, we can all trust that Komen really is “for the Cure”.
Following a career spanning fifteen years in public accounting and tax consulting, Anna Rachnel is now a full-time blogger. In her main blog, The Cancer Culture Chronicles, Anna writes about her personal experiences as a woman living with metastatic breast cancer, her observations of the surrounding breast cancer culture, as well as other important issues relevant to the breast cancer community. She also writes a magazine-style women’s interest blog at Can-Do Women. Hailing from Australia originally, Anna holds an Australian Bachelor’s degree in Accounting, and Masters’ degrees in Business Administration and Science from an American university. She is forty years old and lives in coastal New Jersey with her husband and small dog.