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For Komen, Walks Will Be Fundraising Test

Several thousand people participated in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Tyler, Texas, in 2007. Some walkers for this year's races, including the 3-Day walk, are worried that they might have trouble raising money because of the Planned Parenthood controversy.
Scott M. Lieberman

Over the weekend, the Susan G. Komen foundation held meetings in 15 cities around the country for people who have registered for this summer's 3-Day walks.

The annual events are key fundraisers for the breast cancer research and treatment organization. But after the recent controversy over Komen's grants to Planned Parenthood, some walkers are worried it might be harder to get donations this year.

I'm back with hesitation. I'm watching to see where it goes from here, but I can't walk away from these women who have taught me that cancer's not a death sentence.

On Saturday morning, about two dozen women and a few men braved wintry weather to show up at the public library in Wakefield, Mass., just north of Boston. Most of them were wearing something pink.

"We have a pretty packed agenda today," Bridget Spence, Boston coach for the 3-Day walk, tells the group.

Since the event started nine years ago, its participants have raised more than $600 million nationwide for Komen's central cause: curing breast cancer.

"I want you to leave here today saying yes," Spence says. "Yes, I can raise $2,300. Yes, I can walk 60 miles in three days, and yes, I can sleep in a tent."

Spence says some of her veteran walkers are worried about meeting their fundraising goals this year. So the organization sent them a letter with talking points in case potential donors have questions about the Planned Parenthood controversy. The letter says Komen is "committed to ensuring that all women, regardless of race, social status, political or religious beliefs, have equal access to breast health services."

When the issue first made headlines, breast cancer survivor Dana Fagerquist was one of those who worried about a backlash.

"I had just, just, signed up to walk again, and I thought, 'I'm never going to get support,' " she says. Fagerquist is focusing on donors who know about her personal battle with the disease. She says her feelings for Komen haven't changed.

"This isn't about politics for me. It's about finding a cure for something that's affecting 1 in 8 women, including myself," Fagerquist says. "And I have three daughters to worry about."

"I started walking in 2000," says Pat Greeley, another Boston walker. "I lost my sister four years ago, and I promised her I would keep fighting, keep fighting, because the last thing she said is, 'This has got to stop.' "

Greeley says Komen's work kept her sister alive for years after her diagnosis. She's walking this year even though she thinks the organization's recent actions were political, and a mistake.

Other longtime Komen supporters are more conflicted. Eileen Cummings says she's raised $45,000 for the foundation in seven years. Last week she thought about cutting ties.

"I'm back with hesitation," Cummings says. "I'm watching to see where it goes from here, but I can't walk away from these women who have taught me that cancer's not a death sentence."

Ultimately, Cummings agreed with the other walkers at the Wakefield event, including a few newcomers, that all the political back and forth is beside the point: There's still no cure for breast cancer. And that was the main theme of their coach Bridget Spence's presentation.

"We live in a world with breast cancer," Spence says. "And what does that mean? That means in the hour and a half that you spend with me today, 45 people are going to be diagnosed — 45 people, in an hour and a half."

But, Spence says, when the disease is caught early, the five-year survival rate is now 98 percent — up from 74 percent 30 years ago. And that's progress every Komen walker has helped pay for.

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