Politics or Not, Komen OC’s ‘Race for the Cure’ Is Still On

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Sure, it’s quiet for now at the offices of Susan G. Komen for the Cure in Costa Mesa, which is days away from its annual Race for the Cure, a massive 5K event expected to draw more than 20,000 pink-clad runners and their supporters.

But things will be crazy on the weekend of the Sept. 23 race as a team of workers and volunteers assemble 4,500 feet of fencing, 281 porta potties, 12,500 gallons of water and more than 25,000 T-shirts.

Orange County’s Race for the Cure is one of the nation’s largest 5K races supporting breast cancer detection, education, treatment and research. The race generates the majority of Komen OC’s annual revenue, 75 percent of which goes toward breast health care for the county’s uninsured or underinsured, primarily immigrant women. To that end, Komen OC awarded $1.5 million in grants this year to community groups and clinics serving low-income patients, in addition to underwriting individual patients’ care.

In January, Komen drew controversy when the national organization decided to stop issuing grants to Planned Parenthood clinics to provide breast health services. After an uproar, Komen apologized and restored the grants.

It’s unclear whether actions by the national Komen office damaged local efforts such as Komen OC’s Race for the Cure, held at Fashion Island in Newport Beach. Komen OC executive director Lisa Wolter said registration for the run this year is down about 12 percent, but she doesn’t know whether that’s a result of the controversy or the economy.

In a recent interview with Voice of OC, Wolter explained her organization’s position in the increasingly politicized world of women’s health care, and she discussed this year’s race.

Q: So how are you spending your days leading up to the race?

A: A lot of email blasts to folks who haven’t yet registered, large mailings to folks who have been there before, a lot of race rallies for companies and small business, friends and family. … So a lot of communicating and inspiring and then making sure people have all the details of parking, times, etc.

We have a lot of volunteer support in terms of entertainers — the taiko drummers, the Celtic band. So then it’s coordinating the vendors. They come in starting on Friday, and we set up tents and tables through Saturday to about 5 p.m. We arrive on site at about 4 a.m. Sunday morning to be ready and open for registration at 6:30.

Q: I’m impressed you’re ready by Saturday at 5.

A: This is our 21st year, so we’re pretty good at the logistics of throwing an event for 30,000 of our best friends.

Q: Is this the largest charity race in Orange County?

A: It’s the largest breast cancer event in California and the 10th largest in fundraising dollars for the United States out of 122 races.

Q: How much do you generate?

A: Last year, just under $3 million gross. The expenses are about $400,000 to put it on. Out of the funds raised, 75 percent stay here in Orange County for breast health education, multilanguage outreach, to pay for mammograms and to cover diagnostic procedures for uninsured women and men.

Q: And the other 25 percent goes toward a national research fund?

A: Yes, and that is what’s unique about Komen is we do focus on research and also on people who are in treatment now.

Q: Can you say more about the work of Komen OC?

A: We are laser-focused on the gaps in breast health care and coverage. … Typically you’re looking at uninsured and underinsured — folks who are undocumented and outside the health care system. You’re looking at folks who aren’t comfortable in English and need good breast health info in the many languages that are present here in Orange County. …

We have breast health awareness materials in Vietnamese, Korean, Farsi, Mandarin, Spanish. We provide grants to a community organization and then partner with them to reach into populations that aren’t getting the information.

Q: Can you give example of community outreach?

A: We have a great partnership with Northgate Market [a popular Latino grocery store]. We’re at the stores a couple Saturdays a month talking with women when they’re shopping, and we sign them up for a Saturday to do mammograms right in the grocery store: mobile mammography in a room next to the meat department.

Q: Back to Race for the Cure. Any tweaks or changes this year?

A: We’re encouraging runners to get there early, to be right up front for the 7:15 a.m. race because we have a lot of runners, joggers, walkers, strollers. The thing that will never change is the survivor tribute [at 9 a.m.]. This year we’ll have testimonials from three speakers and the release of doves.

Q: Has this year’s race suffered as a result of the national controversy in January?

A: Our registration is down about 12 percent. That could either be the economy or it could be people who have not taken the time to understand the reality of our grants and of our policies.

Q: How has the incident changed your policies?

A: It forced us to more clearly articulate that all of our funds are for breast health programs and that we work with a variety of clinics, and Planned Parenthood is one of many clinics where women get their healthcare in Orange County. We feel a commitment to having breast health be part of that health care regardless of what clinic is her medical home.

Orange County’s a little unique; there are no county hospitals, so we really rely on community clinics, and Planned Parenthood is one of those. … We audit our grants, we have grant reports and we watch our money like a hawk, because we want it to be used for breast health with all our grantees. And that’s the same today as it was a year ago.

So our grants to Planned Parenthood for breast health never ended. They were not affected by the policy, and we have a strong working relationship with Planned Parenthood of San Bernardino and Orange counties.

Q: Do you hear from the public on this?

A: Every once in a while I do receive an email saying, “I’m not going to register because you defunded or because you do fund [Planned Parenthood].” Then in communicating with that person — it happened two days ago — whatever their issue, I communicate the reality. We do breast health, we only do breast health and we continue to make that a priority. Folks say, “Oh, now that you’ve explained it, I’m back.” I just had a survivor ask that very question, and we had this wonderful email back and forth, and she’s registered and coming.

Q. In your field, is it easy to be distracted by the politics of health care and women’s health?

A. I’m focused on a woman’s survival. Part of her survival is good breast health care throughout her life, and — heaven forbid if she finds that she has breast cancer — that she find it early and have access to treatment. I’m 100 percent clear.

— Interview by AMY DePAUL

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