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Wheary: Keep the focus on women and cancer

Photo Credit: Illustration by Janet Hamlin

'Cancer doesn't have an agenda." That's the username someone created on Thursday to express outrage on one of the forums hosted by the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation website.

This is tame, and articulate, compared to the not-so-subtle "Help us run over poor women on our way to the bank" tagline that a hacker inserted into the Komen homepage around the same time.

And those are only two of the countless angry online protests, tweets, blog items, Facebook posts and other reactions that exploded over Komen's since-reversed decision to stop supporting mammograms at Planned Parenthood.

Komen always remained committed to funding existing grants, but its leaders decided last fall that Planned Parenthood was ineligible to apply for future funding, because the organization is under investigation in Florida for using government funds to perform abortions.

When that decision became public on Tuesday, an all-out firestorm erupted.

Hundreds of thousands of Planned Parenthood supporters signed online petitions condemning Komen and demanding a reversal of policy. About two dozen senators, among them New York's Kirsten Gillibrand, publicly opposed Komen's decision. Mayor Michael Bloomberg pledged $250,000 in personal funds to match donations to Planned Parenthood, dollar for dollar. Even before Bloomberg stepped in, Planned Parenthood had already raised nearly $700,000 in the first 48 hours after the story broke -- about equivalent to the funds that Komen had taken away.

The controversy goes to the heart of the heated "right to choose" vs. "right to life" debate -- with access to potentially lifesaving health services for lower-income women stuck right in the middle. Critics considered Komen's decision politically motivated since its senior vice president of public policy, Karen Handel, is an avowed pro-life conservative.

And ultimately, Komen backed down. On Friday its founder, Nancy Brinker, issued a statement saying that the organization has reconsidered its decision and restored Planned Parenthood's eligibility for future grants. She promised that Komen will amend its funding criteria "to make clear that disqualifying investigations must be criminal and conclusive in nature and not political." Brinker called this "right and fair" and reiterated that "that politics has no place" in Komen's grant process.

It's fitting that the melee took place this past week. Feb. 4 is World Cancer Day, a day designed to bring worldwide awareness and support to individuals and organizations fighting cancer. The events of last week -- controversy and all -- show how passionately the country can unite to address women's health issues.

What we have now is immense momentum. But as both Komen and Planned Parenthood said on Friday, we have to move past the political skirmish and focus again on the overall issue of battling breast cancer.

Breast cancer is the second most common cancer among women in the United States, after non-melanoma skin cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, about 128 out of every 100,000 women nationwide will develop breast cancer, but the rates are higher on Long Island. In Nassau County, that figure is about 139 out of 100,000. In Suffolk, it's 143. Doctors say that early detection is one of the most important factors to increase survival.

In October, the American Cancer Society released a study showing that low-income women are 7 percent more likely than those in higher income brackets to die of breast cancer, and that these women are more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage. That's because, although the American Cancer Society recommends annual mammograms for women starting at age 40, only about half of poor women in their 40s have had a mammogram in the last year. For affluent women, it's nearly three-quarters.

Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the society, says, "Poor women are now at a greater risk for breast cancer death because of less access to screening and better treatments. This continued disparity is impeding real progress against breast cancer."

Lower-income women have less access to health insurance and lifesaving diagnostic tests. So when anyone -- whether it is Komen, Planned Parenthood, Nassau University Medical Center through its mobile mammography van, or many other concerned community-based organizations -- makes screenings available to those who wouldn't be able to afford them, they are saving lives.

Planned Parenthood provided more than 750,000 breast screenings last year, many of them funded by Komen. Komen has invested more than $1.9 billion throughout its 30-year history in research, increasing understanding of the disease, and enabling organizations like Planned Parenthood to provide screenings to many women who wouldn't have gotten them otherwise.

And Komen has had an astounding impact on awareness. Though the organization didn't invent the pink ribbon, it was one of the first groups to use it widely -- handing ribbons out during its well-known Race for the Cure events. Komen's partnerships -- resulting in products from neckties to perfumes -- have permanently connected the color pink to breast cancer in our collective consciousness. And that awareness means more women get screened, get vital information about what's going on in their bodies and get an increased chance to survive.

So while sides were chosen last week, it's impossible to deny the roles that Planned Parenthood and Komen have played -- and will continue to play -- in battling breast cancer. And we do need both organizations to continue their work.

If you have ever faced down a cancer diagnosis, or watched a mother or father, sister or brother, spouse or friend battle the disease, you just want it to stop. You don't want any more uncertainty about what's next, or waiting for biopsy results. You want to stop the suffering. In those moments when you realize you can't stop it, you want to know that you or your loved one is getting the best, most humane treatment -- and that you have access to whatever is needed to prevent or prevail as best possible, given the circumstances.

Cooperation rather than controversy is our best weapon. That's what makes any politically motivated decisions, and the rancorous reactions they bring, painful.

It is easy to get caught up in the sarcasm, anger or cynicism of the moment, and now that Komen has reversed its decision, to move on. But we have a great opportunity to channel this brouhaha into further action. Anyone who "liked" a Facebook status update about Komen or Planned Parenthood should think about what to do next. That might mean making a donation to either organization, scheduling a mammogram, volunteering for a cancer-related cause or supporting someone you know who's suffering from the disease. The individuals and organizations that care about cancer need us to keep our efforts on track.