Bernadette Simpson didn’t have health insurance in 2009 when she found a lump in her breast and needed a mammogram.
A single mother, she had lost her executive assistant’s job, and her insurance coverage had run out.
But through a nurse friend, she learned about health agencies that receive grants from the Charlotte affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure to provide free or reduced-cost mammograms and other services for uninsured and under-insured patients in the region.
At Cabarrus Health Alliance and Carolinas Medical Center-NorthEast, Simpson got her mammogram and biopsy for free. It would have cost her more than $1,000. “It took a huge burden off of me,” said Simpson, 47, of Concord.
She’s one of thousands of Charlotte-area breast cancer patients helped each year with money raised by the local affiliate.
Earlier this year, Komen Charlotte awarded $1.2 million in grants to 21 health agencies in a 13-county region.
On Saturday, Simpson will walk in her fourth Race for the Cure in uptown Charlotte. She is one of the affiliate’s Top Ten fundraisers, having collected more than $3,000 this year.
“I got help, and I just want other people to get the help that I got,” she said.
Surviving the controversey
Registration and fundraising for this year’s Charlotte race is running about the same as last year, said Lori Vaccaro, executive director of Komen Charlotte.
That suggests the local affiliate has escaped heavy damage from the firestorm that broke out early last year over Komen’s decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings.
Amid a public furor, Komen reversed its decision within days. But criticism and hard feelings lingered.
Many saw the decision as politically motivated. Donations to Komen plummeted in some parts of the country while donations to Planned Parenthood rose dramatically.
Komen’s stature also suffered. It fell from No. 2 to No. 56 among the nation’s top charitable brands, according to a Harris poll conducted at the height of the flap.
Across the country, revenue from Komen’s signature Race for the Cure events was down 10 to 15 percent in 2012 compared with the year before, said spokeswoman Andrea Rader. But she said she couldn’t be sure how much of that was the result of the Planned Parenthood controversy or the “general weakness in the economy that all nonprofits are feeling.”
“If people are mad at us, if for some reason they’re not donating, we’d hope they’d reconsider,” Rader said. “We’re the only breast cancer organization that is doing, not only the research, but this community work for people who really need it.”
Major donors and sponsors “have all stayed with us,” and fundraising at the national level has “stayed relatively constant,” she said.
In North Carolina, Komen affiliates in Raleigh and Winston-Salem reported drops of 30 to 40 percent last year.
But the Charlotte affiliate’s fundraising took only a slight dip last year. It raised about $1.5 million, an 8 percent drop from 2011. In that year, it broke a record for registrations and raised $1.6 million, the largest amount in the affiliate’s history.
This year, about 25,000 people are expected to participate in the Komen Charlotte race, Vaccaro said. “We’re going to have a very good year.”
$1.2 million on grants
Vaccaro, who joined the Charlotte affiliate several months after the Planned Parenthood decision, credited her predecessors with staving off crisis by emphasizing Komen’s mission of ending breast cancer by spending its money on education and research.
“Their messaging was right on point,” Vaccaro said, praising Neel Stallings, interim executive director, and Mary Boyd, interim administrative director. “When there’s a crisis, you need excellent communication that is factual and accurate.
“It was absolutely wrong for Komen at the national level to get derailed by politics,” Vaccaro said. “… But no matter of how you feel about national, all of our money stays local or goes to research.”
Seventy-five percent of net proceeds is awarded to local health agencies. The rest goes for breast cancer research.
This year, Komen Charlotte gave $1.2 million in grants to the two Charlotte hospital systems and the Mecklenburg County Health Department as well as other cancer programs in 12 other counties – Anson, Cabarrus, Cleveland, Gaston, Iredell, Lincoln, Montgomery, Richmond, Rowan, Stanly, Union in North Carolina and York in South Carolina.
The group awarded $1.4 million in grants in 2012, and $1.25 million in 2011.
More than 6,500 people received free or reduced-cost medical services or participated in educational programs as a result of Komen grants in 2012, Vaccaro said.
Also last year, the Charlotte affiliate hired its first full-time staffer to focus on spreading the word about breast cancer screening and the availability of Komen grants to cover the cost.
Stacy Nam, who speaks English, Chinese and Spanish, regularly visits nail technicians, hair stylists and hotel maids, bringing the message to women who may not have insurance or enough money to pay for mammograms, Vaccaro said.
New sponsors join the cause
For Charlotte’s Race for the Cure, sponsorships are up this year, Vaccaro said.
New sponsors, such as Harris Teeter at $25,000 and Fifth Third Bank at $10,000, have come on board. And some regulars have significantly increased their support, such as Duke Energy, from $2,500 to $12,500, and Snyder’s Lance, from $2,500 to $10,000.
On the other hand, longtime sponsor Carolinas HealthCare System has significantly decreased its sponsorship amount from $10,000 last year to $2,500 this year.
In 1997, the first year for the Charlotte race, Carolinas HealthCare and Novant Health (then Presbyterian Healthcare) were co-sponsors, each donating more than $20,000. And both have been sponsors at various levels over the years.
This year, for the second consecutive year, Novant is the major “presenting” sponsor of the Charlotte race. Novant, in partnership with Mecklenburg Radiology Associates, gave $60,000 for that designation.
Both Carolinas HealthCare and Novant receive grants from Komen to provide mammograms and other breast health services. Each of the systems has received more than $2.5 million in grants over the years, Vaccaro said.
How would she pay?
Novant’s Presbyterian Medical Center provided help, through a Komen grant, when Reba Whaley needed it in 2007.
The Charlotte paralegal hadn’t seen a doctor for years, because her employer didn’t provide health insurance. Instead of buying a policy for herself, she bought one for her daughter, in case the teen got hurt playing softball.
So, when Whaley found a lump in her breast that spring, she worried about how she would pay for the mammogram and treatment.
At Presbyterian, she was able to get her diagnostic mammogram for free. And after surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment, she also got help from Komen to treat a condition called lymphedema, a swelling in the arm caused by excess fluid.
“My arm and hand blew up like Jiffy Pop,” Whaley said. Treatment involves wearing a custom-made compression sleeve that keeps down the swelling. Presbyterian’s Komen grant paid for two of the sleeves for about $350 each.
Before she got cancer, Whaley said she had given money for the Komen race every year but “had no concept of what they were actually doing with the money.” Today, she’s a Komen “ambassador,” telling other women about the need for screening and the availability of financial help.
“It just takes a load off if you can go get a mammogram and not have to worry about, ‘How am I going to pay for this?’” Whaley said. “If I can help someone else, then to me it was worth all the hell I went through.”
Beverly Taylor, 56, of Charlotte has also received free services thanks to Komen grants.
She was working and had health insurance when she was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer in 2009. But like Whaley, she developed lymphedema. After that she said she was unable to do her job, which required lifting and packing boxes up to 50 pounds. “After my surgery I can’t lift over 10 pounds.”
On disability but without health insurance, Taylor first got a free sleeve at Presbyterian, but later she began going to Carolinas HealthCare System’s Levine Cancer Institute, where she also got free services paid for by Komen. Since 2009, she has been fitted with a new compression sleeve, about $350 each, every six months, and has received several special lymphedema bras that cost $120 each.
“It’s truly been a blessing to know you’re not alone and somebody cares,” Taylor said.
She’ll be walking in Saturday’s Race for the Cure, as she has in previous years.
“I might not be keeping up with everybody, but I’m going to do it,” she said.
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