The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Breast cancer walks are a terrible way to fight breast cancer

They're expensive, and it's not clear they really help women.

Breast Cancer Awareness campaigns, and the licensed pink products they sell, are everywhere you look. But how much of that money goes toward finding a cure? (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

Every spring, major breast cancer charities like Susan G. Komen and the Avon Foundation encourage people to raise money by walking. Each year, multiple organizations put on hundreds of walks, raising tens of millions of dollars. Since the 1980s, they’ve argued that these efforts are key to ending a devastating disease. About their three-day event, Komen proclaims: “This isn’t just a walk. It’s the journey to the end of breast cancer.”

As executive director of the national Breast Cancer Action organization, I’ve seen these walks become larger, shinier and more closely tied to their corporate sponsors. That bloat is bad for supporters and those with cancer alike.

Here’s why: The cost of putting on breast cancer walks today, especially multi-day walks, can be extravagant. And many of the best-known breast cancer charities don’t report how much their walks cost or raise, so it’s impossible to find out how much money really goes to breast cancer programs. These figures should be easy to find, especially as some walks require people to raise thousands of dollars to participate.

For example, based on their news releases, the Avon Foundation raised about $34 million from their two-day walks last year. They gave about $18 million in grants to breast cancer organizations. That means 47 percent of the money raised by walk participants wasn’t publicly accounted for. If all that money is going toward putting on the walks themselves, participants and donors deserve that information so they can decide whether that’s the way they want to spend their time, money and energy.

Even when money does go to breast cancer organizations, it’s unclear what the funds are being used for. The very name of the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure® Series suggests that the money raised from these walks will go to research to find a cure. But Komen’s own website states that only 25 percent of the money raised goes toward “research and training grants.” And even that category doesn’t reveal how much money is going to research alone or the type of research that’s being funded. The other 75 percent goes to “breast cancer health education and breast cancer screening and treatment programs,” a nebulous category that could include everything from pink ribbons to poster campaigns.

Getting answers to where the money goes is critical, because we haven’t made nearly enough progress dealing with the disease’s mortality rate. Today, 250,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with breast cancer annually. More than 40,000 women die of the disease each year, a number that has hardly declined in 25 years.

And essential research is severely underfunded. We’re still not devoting enough resources to studying metastatic, or advanced breast cancer — so fewer women die of the disease — or to understanding the environmental links to breast cancer, which would prevent women from getting breast cancer in the first place.

While we’re on the topic of environmental toxins, one of the most galling aspects of walks for breast cancer is how many of the corporations which produce toxins also sponsor walks and runs for breast cancer and get great PR in the process. We call this pinkwashing, a term we coined in 2002 to describe a company or organization that claims to care about breast cancer while at the same time making or promoting products that increase a woman’s risk of the disease.

As pinkwashing becomes more and more pervasive, people need to be asking whether a breast cancer walk should be sponsored by a corporation that increases our breast cancer risk. Susan G. Komen promotes and takes money from Ford for its Race for the Cure® Series despite the links between auto exhaust and breast cancer. The American Cancer Society does the same with Chevrolet at its “Making Strides Against Breast Cancer” walks. Perhaps the most hypocritical pinkwashing offender is Avon, the multibillion-dollar cosmetics corporation behind the Avon Foundation. While the corporation gains brand loyalty by hosting walks in its name, it also uses chemicals in its makeup that are linked to an increased risk of breast cancer and may even interfere with breast cancer treatment.

The sea of pink cheeriness also covers up what it’s like to live with the disease. In their marketing materials and featured attendees, mainstream breast cancer charities seem to suggest that overcoming a breast cancer diagnosis is as simple as getting an annual mammogram, thinking positively and fighting hard. These messages, and the festive atmosphere of the walks, hide the devastating, complex reality of the disease. There is no cure for metastatic breast cancer; suggesting that breast cancer is something you can “beat” if you just do the right things is both cruel and inaccurate. Komen says their Race for the Cure® “honors women who have lost their battle with the disease.” Saying women “lost a battle” implies they didn’t “fight” hard enough to win.

As Lisa Boncheck Adams, a prolific writer who died of metastatic breast cancer last year, wrote: “I felt the Komen organization was putting a happy face on breast cancer, and not paying attention to the often-unpleasant realities of life as a survivor (including recurrence).”

Of course, there is nothing wrong with a physical challenge, spending time together remembering a loved one, or connecting with people who have a similar experience. But those walking and running to have an impact on the breast cancer epidemic deserve better from major breast cancer charities.

We deserve organizations that are accountable, transparent and using their power to make a real difference in the lives of women with the disease. We need to do our part by holding them accountable and asking these important questions. If you can’t get the answer, or the answer is unsatisfactory to you, I encourage you to give directly to an organization doing work you believe is important.

This Spring, join me in pushing these big-name charities putting on breast cancer walks truly make a meaningful difference in the lives of women living with and at risk of breast cancer.