D.C. Komen race draws thousands of walkers to fund cure for breast cancer

More than 25,000 walkers and runners filled the Mall on Saturday morning to raise money for breast cancer research and screening.

But it was a diminished turnout after the recent controversy about the sponsoring charity’s attempt to stop funding Planned Parenthood.

Some participants said a few friends and co-workers were reluctant to donate to the Susan G. Komen Global Race for the Cure because of the political dust-up. But others said nobody had mentioned the controversy, and many who have participated in the walk for several years said they raised more money than ever.

“If Komen made a mistake, they apologized, and I forgive them,” said Susan Sonley, a commercial real estate broker from Reston and a two-time breast cancer survivor. Her team, Champions for the Cure, has raised $925,000 during 10 previous Komen walks and this year raised more than $90,000, making it the event’s top fundraiser.

“I feel the whole thing needs to be put behind us so we can move forward raising money to help people who need it,” she said.

Shawn Gardner, whose sister, Heather, died of breast cancer, said Team Heather raised $56,000, the most in the 11 years he has walked in her memory.

“Ultimately, there’s a message in the fact it’s our biggest year,” he said.

The controversy erupted in February when Komen decided to pull $680,000 for breast cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood and then reversed the decision after a public outcry.

But there were few signs of the flap Saturday amid a sea of walkers wearing pink boas and wigs, tutus and T-shirts. Some women carrying bright pink placards showing their support for Planned Parenthood said they were employees of the reproductive health organization. And antiabortion protesters holding graphic photos stood near the beginning of the walk. A Komen spokeswoman said protesters have appeared at several walks held in other cities this year.

The walkers paid them little heed.

“Abortion isn’t what this walk is about, it’s about hope and life,” said Rita Purcell-Robertson, a speech pathologist for Loudoun County schools who was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer in February. She participated in the walk in a wheelchair pushed by her niece.

Andrea Rader, a Komen spokeswoman, estimated Saturday’s turnout at 26,000 to 27,000. The D.C. event, one of the largest in the country, drew 40,000 participants last year. In previous years, up to 60,000 people have participated.

The Komen Web site tallied $1.8 million raised from Saturday’s walk. But fundraising will continue for the next 30 days, and Rader said it was too early to gauge the financial impact of the controversy.

“We’re certainly aware that there might be some who stay away because of it,” she said. “We hope they don’t stay away for long.”

As in years past, the race was a poignant combination of celebration and solemnity.

Cheerleaders from Friendly High School in Prince George’s County positioned themselves near the end of the route on Independence Avenue, shouting cheers to welcome “teams” formed by churches, workplaces, schools, Scout troops and neighborhoods. Many teams took the name of someone who had died of breast cancer, and the faces of the disease’s victims looked out from T-shirts and placards.

Marshall Moneymaker of Bethesda, the “Pink Fireman” of the Montgomery County Fire Department who lost three sisters to breast cancer, was back for the second year.

“It changes your life,” he said of the disease.

Many battling breast cancer said they were buoyed by friends who accompanied them.

Purcell-Robertson said many of the 20 or so co-workers with her Saturday had chipped in to hire house cleaners while she was in chemotherapy and had put together a scrapbook that made her laugh.

“I feel blessed by the support from my friends and colleagues,” she said. “These guys are wonderful.”

Carol Morello writes about demographics and the census, as well as a lot of other stuff that comes down the pike. She has worked at the Washington Post since 2000.
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