“Welcome to Cancerland” — or What does Komen do with all that money?

Credit Rick Perlstein (via Twitter) for this great find.

In Harper’s Magazine, November 2001, the great Barbara Ehrenreich writes (my emphasis and paragraphing):

Today [breast cancer is] the biggest disease on the cultural map, bigger than AIDS, cystic fibrosis, or spinal injury, bigger even than those more prolific killers of women — heart disease, lung cancer, and stroke. There are roughly hundreds of websites devoted to it, not to mention newsletters, support groups, a whole genre of first-person breast-cancer books; even a glossy, upper-middle-brow, monthly magazine, Mamm.

There are four major national breast-cancer organizations, of which the mightiest, in financial terms, is The Susan G. Komen Foundation, headed by breast-cancer veteran and Bush’s nominee for ambassador to Hungary Nancy Brinker. Komen organizes the annual Race for the Cure©, which attracts about a million people — mostly survivors, friends, and family members. Its website provides a microcosm of the new breast-cancer culture, offering news of the races, message boards for accounts of individuals’ struggles with the disease, and a “marketplace” of breast-cancer-related products to buy.

Ehrenreich then looks at why breast cancer is different and represents a different “opportunity.”

[B]reast cancer has blossomed from wallflower to the most popular girl at the corporate charity prom. While AIDS goes begging and low-rent diseases like tuberculosis have no friends at all, breast cancer has been able to count on Revlon, Avon, Ford, Tiffany, Pier 1, Estee Lauder, Ralph Lauren, Lee Jeans, Saks Fifth Avenue, JC Penney, Boston Market, Wilson athletic gear — and I apologize to those I’ve omitted.

You can “shop for the cure” during the week when Saks donates 2 percent of sales to a breast-cancer fund; “wear denim for the cure” during Lee National Denim Day, when for a $5 donation you get to wear blue jeans to work. You can even “invest for the cure,” in the Kinetics Assets Management’s new no-load Medical Fund, which specializes entirely in businesses involved in cancer research.

If you can’t run, bike, or climb a mountain for the cure — all of which endeavors are routine beneficiaries of corporate sponsorship — you can always purchase one of the many products with a breast cancer theme.

There are 2.2 million American women in various stages of their breast-cancer careers, who, along with anxious relatives, make up a significant market for all things breast-cancer-related. Bears, for example: I have identified four distinct lines, or species, of these creatures, including “Carol,” the Remembrance Bear; “Hope,” the Breast Cancer Research Bear, which wears a pink turban as if to conceal chemotherapy-induced baldness; the “Susan Bear,” named for Nancy Brinker’s deceased sister, Susan; and the new Nick & Nora Wish Upon a Star Bear, available, along with the Susan Bear, at the Komen Foundation website’s “marketplace.”

And bears are only the tip, so to speak, of the cornucopia of pink-ribbon-themed breast-cancer products. …

Despite the non-profit status, Komen and its aggressive and jealous trademarking and organizational branding looks a lot like like a major, professional, corporate operation, doesn’t it?

And not a very feminist one. (There’s a whole essay on that here by itself.) Ehrenreich is careful to note, for example, the infantilizing aspect of the products, not just from Komen, but throughout the breast cancer biz. After listing all the pink-themed geegaws, from Body Crème to journals-with-crayons (yes, crayons), she writes: “Certainly men diagnosed with prostate cancer do not receive gifts of Matchbox cars.”

Not that this world of breast cancer sales to victims, survivors and families is one-sidedly bad:

This is not, I should point out, a case of cynical merchants exploiting the sick. Some of the breast-cancer tchotchkes and accessories are made by breast-cancer survivors themselves[.]

But it’s not one-sidedly good either.

This piece is, first and foremost, a personal story of the assault on what she calls the “Barbara project” by the aggressive cells she hosts. Yes, Ehrenreich was diagnosed with breast cancer. This is her tale of it, and wonderful writing in its own right.

But the essay is so much more than a personal story, as the quotes above indicate.

Breast cancer really is different from any other health care charity

Breast cancer has a unique place among the country’s charity “opportunities.” For example, here Ehrenreich considers breast cancer’s causes, noting that only 10% of breast cancers are gene-based, and looks at (1) the studies of environmental factors, (2) the issue of feminism, and (3) corp-friendly orgs like Komen:

[E]mphasis on possible ecological factors, which is not shared by groups such as Komen and the American Cancer Society, puts the feminist breast-cancer activists in league with other, frequently rambunctious, social movements — environmental and anticorporate.

… and …

as Cindy Pearson, director of the National Women’s Health Network, the organizational progeny of the Women’s Health Movement, puts it more caustically: “Breast cancer provides a way of doing something for women, without being feminist.”

Smart. Can you see the corporate compromises shaping up? No ecology please, if you want our bucks. Some of us have pollution “issues.” And feminist-free, thank you very much. Wouldn’t want to offend Mr. Limbaugh, whom we may also sponsor.

So let’s pause here and tote things up:

1. Komen’s founder Nancy Brinker has a cancer story in her immediate family, and founds Komen for the Cure in 1982. She genuinely cares about breast cancer.

2. Brinker is also a right-wing Republican since Reagan and a loyal Bushie. She’s a long-time big dollar donor to Republican causes and election campaigns, along with her then-husband Norman Brinker, whom she met in 1983.

Are the Brinkers bundlers as well? Not sure, but the rewards start to look like it. In 1986, President Reagan appointed her to the National Cancer Advisory Board; Bush I bumped her up to chair of the President’s Cancer Advisory Panel.

By 2001 she was Bush II’s Ambassador to Hungary (these are often thank-you’s to bundlers and big donors, in both parties). Her electoral giving by that time had totaled a reported $175,000 to Republicans since 1990; at the same time, her husband’s giving totaled nearly half a million.

Bush II liked her so much, he made her Chief of Protocol for the U.S. in 2007. (In that job, she got to greet the Pope first off the plane. Perk city.)

3. Finally, this from Ehrenreich:

Avon Breast Cancer Crusade, which sponsors three-day, sixty-mile walks, spends more than a third of the money raised on overhead and advertising, and Komen may similarly fritter away up to 25 percent of its gross…

Or more (see “Education” below).

The twin paths

Can you see the twin paths, and the way they can easily be merged?

On the political side, she’s a big enough player in the scratch me–scratch you game of elections and funding that she gets ambassadorships. On the breast cancer side, she has a compelling story and a great feminist-free cause (unlike uterine cancer, for example, or cervical cancer, which involve the politics of actual reproduction).

As an agent of Movement Conservatism, she takes her political story to corporations and plays quid-pro-quo (no corp gives without getting — it’s the law).

As a businesswoman running the largest charity in its “market,” she takes her breast cancer story to corporations and plays quid-pro-quo (no corp gives without getting — it’s the law).

Are there political quids for breast-cancer quos? There are a lot of ways to play quid-pro-quo as a high-dollar charity with politically active management; only one of them involves things like “pinkwashing.” Take, for example, this pink gun (yep, go ahead and click; it’s what you think it is).

What’s the quo for this NRA-themed quid? Think there wasn’t one? This minute, in my neighborhood, there’s a real estate deal going on involving the city, a non-profit seller, a non-profit buyer, and a nice big downtown building. The deal is stalled; the city and the neighborhood need to move it along.  In comes a major property developer who’s working on the seller and buyer to agree, just trying to help out.

There are hints of a side deal, in which one or both of the non-profits get access to the developer’s big-money fundraising list and his go-ahead to use them. Sweet; that’s money in the bank. The developer’s involvement isn’t public; I know about the side deal talk because I’m two “Kevin Bacons” from the developer, and the guy who’s one Bacon away got the info direct from the source.

(If there’s another side deal with the city, I haven’t heard about it. But I wouldn’t put it past them; these are pros.)

This is how it’s done, folks. So back to the pinkwashed Walther P-22. Who benefits from the gun-dealer’s deal with Komen? Just the Seattle seller, or pro-gun groups as well in their battle for gun rights everywhere? If I’m a deal-maker (and donation collector), I smell an opportunity. Did Komen or anyone else make use of it? I have no idea, but it’s a fair question.

But if you start to wonder what the NRA (for example) might have given up in side deals to get gun-toting “washed in the pink” — and what may have been handed out by some fourth party as well — I say you’re thinking like the pros yourself, walking in the woods with your eyes open, fog free.

Calling Jimmy Olsen

We’re in a world of far more questions than answers, and I’d love some real-life Jimmy Olsen, someone looking for a career-making story, to dig deep into the money on this one; to find the side deals, if any.

Here’s something to get you started, Mr. or Ms. Olsen — Salaries aside (almost $500,000 for the CEO), the bulk of Komen’s outgoing money, almost 50%, is here called Education.

What’s “Education”?

Komen’s deal-making could be clean as a whistle. It could also be a rat hole — and not just a Republican one. The previous lobbying for Komen, just prior to Georgia-GOP Karen Handel coming on board, was Dem-heavy, and Nancy Pelosi just stepped up to forgive a post-chastened Komen. Quid? Quo? Bidding for the next dollar, or just a pal doing a pal a favor?

See what I mean? This is bigger than Planned Parenthood; that just opened the door. This is about money, a lot of it. We’ll never really know what’s going on until someone looks into it, and as I wrote earlier, the time to look is now.

(Me, I’m not named Olsen, but I am always open for links. If you send me a good one and I can’t use it, I’ll be sure to pass it on. And thanks.)

Update: And then there’s this (h/t Amanda Marcotte).

GP


Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States. Click here for more. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius and Facebook.

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