Breast cancer awareness

Mary Elko, a mammography technologist, reviews a mammogram at Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center in Windber, Pa., on Sept. 25, 2017.

With pink ribbons adorning everything from lipstick to footballs, it may seem easy to support breast cancer patients and research.

But advocates warn not all pink products and fundraisers are equal.

The Breast Cancer Action organization calls it “pinkwashing” and warns consumers that some company promote pink ribbon products while selling items that can cause cancer. 

“Any company can put a pink ribbon on its products,” the nonprofit says in its website. The widely recognized pink ribbon symbol is not regulated by any agency and does not necessarily mean it effectively combats the breast cancer epidemic.”

Some natural health and beauty products feature the ribbon simply to show they are “healthy” and don’t contribute to breast cancer. Other products have ribbons to show the company makes a donation for breast cancer programs, not necessarily tied to the items being purchased, the Think Before You Pink campaign says. 

The National Football League’s high-visibility “A Crucial Catch” program and pink merchandise has been criticized for the relatively small amount of money that is donated. 

Others note that the money is used for cancer awareness and screening access but not cancer research. 

Funds raised through the league’s programs benefit the American Cancer Society’s Community Health Advocates Implementing Nationwide Grants for Empowerment and Equity Grant Program. 

The society’s website says the program “builds community and system capacity to promote health equity, access and navigation to screening resources within underserved communities.”

The news website Vice Sports points out the NFL’s total donation of more than $1 million works out to about $31,000 per team. In perspective, that’s less than half the $75,000 total linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive backs William Gay and J.J. Wilcox were fined by the league for infractions during the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 21-18 victory over  the Cleveland Browns on Sept. 10.

Even when a substantial amount of money is donated to a breast cancer charity, the benefits are not always passed on to patients or researchers, the Charity Navigator organization warns. Its ratings of national organizations show significant disparity in some programs. 

At the low end of the scale, the Walker Cancer Research Institute spent more than 95 percent of its budget on fundraising and administration, Charity Navigator says. That left only 4.8 percent for programming. 

At the top, Prevent Breast Cancer Foundation spent less than 17 percent on fundraising and administration, leaving 83 percent for programs. 

The well-known Susan G. Komen for the Cure spends about 20 percent on fundraising and administration, and 80 percent on programming. 

The American Cancer Society spends about 40 percent on fundraising and 60 percent on programs, Charity Navigator says. 

Most local pink-out fundraisers benefit area organizations working to help cancer patients and promote research.

The Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center at Chan Soon-Shiong Medical Center at Windber is among the primary beneficiaries. Its leaders say they understand the value of community support. 

Annual Taunia Oechslin Girls Night Out events have raised hundreds of thousands for the Windber center and organizers expect accountability, hospital President and CEO Tom Kurtz said.  

“We meet with them throughout the year,” Kurtz said at the hospital. “We are held accountable for every dollar that is spent. We want it that way.”

The Girls Night Out organization’s role does not end with the check presentation, he added.

“They are directly involved with Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center advisory committee,” Kurtz said. “They are partners in that with us.”

Funds donated to the Joyce Murtha Center help patients who can’t afford annual screening mammograms and follow-ups, said Debra Sims, a Windber breast surgeon. 

“If you have no insurance, we have a Pink Ribbon Care Fund,” Sims said, crediting the Girls Night Out organization and others who donate. “There is no excuse anymore not to get a mammogram, from a medical standpoint.”

Other cancer-directed philanthropy is handled locally by the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies and 1889 Foundation. 

Katrina Perkosky, a development associate for the Community Foundation, says many of the breast cancer funds benefit the Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center’s free screening program. But all the cancer funds have a local focus. 

“The Community Foundation, by its very nature, is designed to help the community  it supports,” Perkosky said. 

“A vast majority of the funding goes to support local organizations.”

The foundation manages more than a dozen funds dedicated to cancer prevention and research. They distributed about $336,000 last year, Perkosky said. 

The 1889 Foundation, which was formerly Conemaugh Health Foundation, also has a local focus. It continues to support a number of cancer prevention and treatment assistance initiatives.  

Randy Griffith is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5057. Follow him on Twitter @PhotoGriffer57.