Daniel Rubin: Pink-ribbon racers honor survivors, recall funding flap

About 6,000 breast-cancer survivors descend the Art Museum steps Sunday at the Philadelphia Race for the Cure.
About 6,000 breast-cancer survivors descend the Art Museum steps Sunday at the Philadelphia Race for the Cure. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff)
Posted: May 15, 2012

Five years ago, as soon as her breast-cancer treatment ended, Mindy Cohen put on the pink.

She e-mailed everyone she knew, asking whether they'd walk in her name at the annual Race for the Cure. By that first race day, Team Mindy was already a juggernaut.

About 120 people marched by her side to raise money for the cause - so many that they won an award from the race organizer, the Susan G. Komen Foundation, for assembling the largest entrant in the event's friends and family division.

They won the next year, and every year after, raising more than $30,000 for Komen.

"Everything we did was Team Mindy," says the Elkins Park mother of three daughters.

This brings us to January, when the enormously successful nonprofit found itself needing the services of an expert in crisis communications.

Its board in Dallas had voted to stop funding Planned Parenthood. The initial explanation was technical - a Florida congressman was investigating the organization, which in addition to offering breast-health services, provides abortions.

Cohen was headed to a race kickoff when she learned of the controversy. She told her supporters that, in good conscience, she could no longer participate in fund-raising. Team Mindy collapsed.

So what drew her to the Art Museum steps again Sunday, draped in pink?

"To me," she said, "the race is always about survivors."

And so she found herself standing with 6,000 sisters in triumph, women like Diane Miller, 65, a retired teacher from East Torresdale, who never considered pulling her support from Komen, which has since reversed its controversial decision. "It's been so important to me," the breast-cancer survivor said.

Cohen wore sunglasses, as she does each year, because emotions overwhelm her when the other women tell their stories - what it was like when they learned of their diagnosis, how they are holding up now. They meet at the museum and descend triumphantly as one, and, at the end, they say, "Same time, same place next year." It is powerful.

For Cohen, 46, the financing flap was more than a PR disaster. Asked to describe herself, she begins with her diagnosis, the treatment, the recovery. Her feelings about abortion rights solidified in college when a friend who chose to end her pregnancy had neither the money nor a ride to the doctor's office. Cohen was there to support her friend as she walked past the protesters.

"I had a car. I picked her up," Cohen said. "I believe in this."

So do I. My mother was an abortion counselor. She spent 30 years helping women make the most difficult decisions imaginable.

Once the last of her kids was out of the house, she volunteered at Pregnancy Counseling Service in Boston, helping women find safe treatment in New York clinics. The day in 1973 after the U.S. Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, my mother was hired by the Crittington-Hastings House, where in the operating room she held the hands of Radcliffe students and public-health-service clients, women who were stoic, teary, resolute, distraught.

I asked Mom, now 84, about the emotional drain of her work, and we talked about how my having premature twins made me wince at the thought of ending a life.

"Yes," she said, "it's not a frivolous decision."

With participation in the races down across the country, Komen is working to regain its supporters' trust, Elaine Grobman, its local CEO, told me. She said the national directors made a mistake. She asked that I not be negative about the organization.

"In your conscience, remember: You have the power to save women's lives, and when people are negative, the only people they hurt are the women who need their help."

I mentioned this to my mother, who for years donated to Komen. She replied, "I'm giving directly to the American Cancer Society this year."

Cohen says she will likely go back to raising money for Komen, eventually. But she'll no longer try to be the biggest team or win any awards. "I see Komen going very corporate now, and not as much about survivors," she said. "And that's a shame."


Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @danielrubin.

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