The Portland title image
About Us - Subscribe - Contact & Submission info

Front Page > Issues > 2004 >July

Is Komen Foundation racing to a real cure?

Does sponsor of annual Race for the Cure downplay environmental causes and the polluting corporations that contribute to the foundation?

By Morgan Currie

This September, over 10,000 people dressed in sweatbands, jogging shorts, and a shocking amount of pink will swarm the streets of downtown Portland for the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s annual Race for the Cure. Traffic will be re-routed to make way for the event, which is one of the state’s largest fundraisers for breast cancer victims.

Founded in 1982 by Nancy Brinker, the Komen Foundation hosts millions of participants in over 100 cities around the US and abroad during its annual races. The races are a stunning success - in 2002 alone the Portland race raised $1.7 million. Three-fourths of these funds go back into local communities to pay for education, outreach, and free mammograms for low-income women. The remaining 25 percent of the funds goes to general breast cancer research.

While it is undeniable that the Komen Foundation looms large in the landscape of breast cancer advocacy foundations, there is another side to the euphoric picture of joggers racing in solidarity against the disease. Critics of the foundation point out that Komen focuses too much on medical cures to cancer and on early detection, with little to no mention of environmental causes like pollution or toxins, or the political influence of corporations that contribute to these ills.

Going even further, Komen receives donations from environmentally irresponsible corporations. Among its 45-plus corporate sponsors are Ford, BMW, and Chevron. Car exhaust is cited as one environmental factor that possibly leads to breast cancer, and research on this by the National Institute of Health has found a link between automotive emissions and mammary gland tumors in animals such as mice. Another corporate partner is Yoplait, a division of General Mills and one of the largest sponsors of the Race for the Cure. Yoplait uses products with bovine growth hormone (BGH) — also a possible link to breast cancer according to a Princeton University study.

Additionally, Komen advocates the drug Tamoxifen as chemoprevention for those at risk of, but not yet diagnosed with, breast cancer. While Tamoxifen is a very successful treatment for those who have breast cancer, there is no proof that it prevents cancer for those at risk, though it may stave off cancer for a few years for a small percentage of women. Adverse affects associated with Tamoxifen may outweigh its powers of prevention. Its risks include endometrial cancer, stroke, and venous thromboembolic disease. Perhaps not coincidentally, Tamoxifen is created by AstraZeneca, a pharmaceutical company that is a long-time financial sponsor of the Komen Race for the Cure.

There are other cases of the Komen’s comfortable relations with environmentally irresponsible corporations. Occidental Chemical donates 4,000 square feet of office space at Komen’s Dallas headquarters. Occidental is also the creator of an infamous problem child, its toxic dump in New York known as Love Canal.
Komen additionally owns stock in General Electric. Along with mammography equipment, GE makes nuclear reactors and has one of the highest numbers of Superfund toxic waste sites in the country.

All of this corporate partnering, says Barbara Bremmer from San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Action, causes Komen to “put themselves in harms way.” Instead of educating people on the connection between breast cancer and pollution, Bremmer claims that “[Komen] can’t go there, because they are so tied to industries that contribute to the problem.”

Breast cancer is a fatal disease without a cure. It kills over 40,000 women a year, and is the leading cause of death for women worldwide. Breast cancer is on the rise, with 1 in 7 women diagnosed in 2003. While fewer people are dying from breast cancer than they were a decade ago, it is on a steady incline, up from the 1 in 11 diagnosed in 1975. Incidence is higher in heavily industrialized countries like the United States and Europe than in Asia and Africa. Only 10 percent of diagnosed cases are caused by heredity, the rest by environmental factors.

Though no definitive links have been proven, it is generally thought by researchers that toxins in the environment, called “environmental estrogens” by Dr. C. W. Jameson of the U. S. National Institute of Health, link to cancer.

Komen does support studies linking cancer and the environment, though it is unclear how much. They have contributed funds to the Silent Springs Institute and to individuals who investigate environmental impacts on breast cancer incidence from the standpoint of pollutants and other toxic substances. However the bulk of their funds and their emphasis remain on early detection and healthy lifestyle.

These are important concerns, to be sure, but they put the burden of fighting breast cancer squarely on the individual and not on larger trends that are affecting the air we breathe, claims a statement on Breast Cancer Action’s website written by Bremmer.

Komen instead stresses the use of current medical technology for early detection, such as tamoxifren and screening mammograms for any woman over the age of 40. Other organizations, like the National Breast Cancer Coalition, urge more caution with the invasive treatments currently used for breast cancer.

Mammograms have a terrible rate of failure, they point out, with 80 percent of suspicious mammogram results later proved false. By the time she finds out, a woman may have undergone unnecessary biopsies and overtreatment with chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Being informed on these risks prevents patients from undergoing more unnecessary pain.

While Komen is a spectacular fundraiser for Oregon, there nevertheless remains the crucial question of how much corporate friendliness may affect the kind of research it advocates and the information it emphasizes to breast cancer patients. The issue remains a question of how long breast cancer will continue to be the number one killer of women in the world.

Morgan Curry is a writer and filmmaker living in Portland. She currently works as an associate producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting.


Back to Top


The Portland Alliance 2807 SE Stark Portland,OR 97214
Questions, comments, suggestions for this site contact the webperson at

Last Updated: July 5, 2004