Tomorrow about 8,000 people will participate in the Washington Race for the Cure, an event that sponsors hope will raise $500,000 for breast cancer research and education. It is a worthy cause that has attracted the sponsorship of numerous celebrities, topped by Marilyn Quayle, wife of the vice president. Mrs. Quayle's mother died of the disease.

If those 8,000 people took an additional few moments to write letters to their senators and representatives, however, they might be able to work the political process to secure far more money for breast cancer research than they could with any single volunteer-run event. For the fact of the matter is that breast cancer research is shamefully underfunded, and women have failed to use the political process to protect their lives.

They could learn a lesson from AIDS activists who have lobbied, cajoled and appealed to hysteria as well as to sound moral and economic reasoning in their well-organized public health campaign to get money from the federal government to battle the disease. The result: In the last fiscal year, $750 million was appropriated for AIDS research at the National Institutes of Health, according to Chris DeVries of the American Nurses Association. That, she said, was for pure research, and does not include the AZT trials, which are in a different budget. By contrast, a total of only $77 million was appropriated in 1989 for all breast cancer work at NIH, and only $17 million was for pure research into the origin of the disease.

Forty-four times as much money was spent on basic AIDS research in 1989 at NIH than was spent on basic breast cancer research.

Since 1980, about 54,000 persons have died of AIDS. This year, some 43,000 women will die of breast cancer. Put another way, about 430,000 women have died of breast cancer since 1980. That's eight times more people than we lost during the entire Vietnam War. It's eight times more people than we have lost to AIDS.

AIDS research became a political popular cause at about the same time that the public became frightened that the disease was going to spread into the heterosexual community. The epidemic nature of the disease -- and its potential for killing ever-increasing numbers -- gave an immediacy to AIDS research that other diseases lack. So does its costly impact on the public health care system, since many of its victims wind up with no health insurance.

Rep. Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio) has introduced a bill to add $25 million to the National Cancer Institute's budget for breast cancer research. At a hearing in April before a House Appropriations subcommittee, she testified that breast cancer will strike 142,000 women in 1990, and she said it too was an epidemic. "Every 13 minutes an American woman is diagnosed with breast cancer." The rate has doubled since 1961.

"It is not enough to emphasize public education and early detection of the disease, although this has saved or prolonged many lives. What is needed is a cure." She cited federal data that say the death rate has increased 24 percent from 1979 to 1986.

She gave numerous examples of promising research into the causes of breast cancer and links with diet and alcohol and family history that have not been explored because of insufficient money at the National Cancer Institute.

Oakar has supported AIDS research funding and pointed to it as an example of how effective federal research can be. She said that breast cancer experts have told her that $25 million more must be spent on research each year for the next five years to adequately follow up leads to a possible cure.

Treatment of breast cancer averages $15,000 per patient when detected early and can go up to $125,000 for those in whom it is detected late, when chances of a cure are much reduced. There is a huge economic toll in lost work time, family travel expenses, and lost family work time, which one study put at $5.1 billion for 1985. There is the cost to employers in health claims and in the loss of women employees, and there is the terrible cost to families of losing their women in battles that can bankrupt the survivors.

While we have devoted vast resources to preserving the Western world, most of the countries we have been protecting have developed national health care systems. With the Cold War over, it is time to redirect our resources. One in nine women will get breast cancer. In 1987, NIH spent only 13.7 percent of its research budget on women's health projects. How this money is allocated is a purely political process, which women have to use far more effectively than we have. AIDS activists proved that the money is there and can be well spent.