Komen In NYC: Still Walking And Changing Awareness

On a recent Saturday in Central Park, pink fabrics speckled the late-summer scene. Before eight A.M. a hundred or so breast cancer survivors, volunteers, and the leadership of the Greater New York Affiliate of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, gathered in “Hope Village,” just south of the 72nd Street transverse. I sat within the temporary station, by a path near tall, leafy trees. Around me, women and a few men chatted and munched on breakfast at tables fitted with light pink cloths, under big white umbrellas.

The vibe in Hope Village was strictly positive. Linda Tantawi, CEO of the region’s Komen chapter, and organizer-in-chief of the annual “Race for the Cure” in New York City, brimmed with energy. She stepped up to the microphone. Her pixie haircut, bangs, and wide smile, topping a tall and slender frame, counter her age. She’s a Bon Jovi enthusiast: “Everyone get up on your feet” she commanded, before putting her hands high in the air, clapping, and rocking out to “Livin’ on a Prayer.”

Nancy Brinker, the surviving sister of Susan Goodman Komen, spoke next. She founded the organization, now a mega-charity, after Susan died from breast cancer at age thirty-six, in 1980. “I am so encouraged by where we are today, in our fight against breast cancer,” she said. Now approaching age seventy, she wore her hair drawn back, firmly, over a bright pink tee shirt and athletic gear. “We are not, ever, going to stop doing what we do.”

The first “Race for the Cure” was held in Dallas, in 1983. The Komen organization says that since then, it’s raised and distributed more money for breast cancer care, education and scientific investigations than any entity besides the U.S. government: $2 billion for communities, including rural and poor areas, to assure women’s access to screening and, when cancer is found, treatment; and over $900 million for research. Last month, Komen announced a $27 million Health Equity Initiative to improve breast cancer care in ten U.S. cities where mortality and late-stage diagnosis of African American women are highest.

In 2012, Komen faced criticism, loss of donations, and a steep drop in race participants after some of its regional affiliates pulled back on grant support to Planned Parenthood. The national office, in Dallas, subsequently hired a new CEO, Dr. Judy Salerno, a Harvard-educated physician who holds a master’s degree in public health. The New York affiliate, the nation’s largest, has continued to fund Planned Parenthood for breast examination services, in Nassau and Suffolk Counties. While the agency hasn’t given up on the color pink, or raising awareness–what might instead be called public discussion, and education–about breast cancer, including messages about benefits of screening and early detection, it has remodeled some of its programs and aims.

Eric Brinker, a Manhattan dweller and Nancy’s son, talked up the charity’s funding of research in metastatic disease. Komen recently awarded a large $375,000 grant to the Metastatic Breast Cancer Project. In that innovative effort, oncologists and scientists at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, in Boston, and the Broad Institute, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are collecting and analyzing specimens submitted by thousands of patients. The work enjoys unusual support from people living with metastatic breast cancer, around the United States and Canada, who communicate on-line; many have contributed samples, and details of their medical history, only after becoming aware of the project through social media.

The Hope Village program continued until shortly before race time. Some 8,000 registrants had assembled near the American Museum of Natural History at Central Park West. To be sure, their number was on the slim side, down from a peak of 25,000. Their three-mile course looped through the park and finished near the top of the mall, steps from the Bethesda terrace. Some moved in large groups with tee shirts highlighted a workplace, club, or reason for being there, in honor or memory of someone who had breast cancer. Others walked in family clusters, or pairs. Some pushed strollers. A giant arch of pink balloons crowned the endpoint.

Meanwhile the park filled with Saturday morning players: people walking dogs, riding bikes, lawn bowling, chatting and meandering across town. Near the finish line, at the mall opposite the Naumburg bandshell, a carnival-like atmosphere prevailed, with booths, refreshments and people milling about.

The Komen expo included a range of activities. Most were cancer-themed. Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant, displayed photos revealing the lives of people affected by metastatic breast cancer; Ambry Genetics gave away handouts on DNA testing; Hologic, the manufacturer of 3-D mammograms, offered brochures on breast cancer screening. Pepsi, a corporate benefactor of the Komen race, distributed Quaker cereals, chips, and cool drinks, besides comfortable chairs in the shade.

The odd thing was the appearance of pink turbans. Those started popping up by the dozens, on people in and around the tents and tables. Pink turbans materialized on Komen volunteers, people who could be identified by their purple tee shirts; they surfaced on runners, men and women with race numbers pinned to their shirts; and on passersby.

The Sikhs of New York, a volunteer network that aims to increase and understanding of the Sikh religion in America, had the busiest spot at the fair. As I watched, a spectrum of New Yorkers and visitors–American black, Caucasian, Caribbean, Chinese, Dominican, Filipino, Russian and other people–donned the special pink headgear.

“Say turban,” I overheard, repeatedly. At the center of the turban-tying activity, a poster-sized square frame encouraged the taking of photos. It bore Instagram colors and fonts, location marked Central Park, and listed numerous hashtags (in deep pink): #SikhsOfNY, #Pinkturban, #TurbandayNYC, #SOFNY, #SinghInTheCity, #SusanGKomen.

Chanpreet Singh, the group’s leader, wore a large, bright pink turban and big sunglasses. “Coming here gives us the opportunity to support breast cancer survivors,” he told me. “The turban is like a crown.” It represents dignity, and bravery. “We are here to honor the breast cancer survivors, by giving them our crowns.”

The concept, of piggybacking Sikh awareness onto a demonstration of support for breast cancer, awareness, seemed odd. The connection puzzled me. You might consider, as I did, that the Sikhs of New York were using the Komen event–and what sympathy for people affected by breast cancer remains in the community–for their own purposes. Yet other organizations, drug companies, and hospitals, use the walk, too, to raise awareness about their products and work. The difference is that the Sikhs have no particular breast cancer tie-in. Except maybe that they’re vulnerable, too.

I reconsidered. The message might be one of tolerance and shared concerns among neighbors who face distinct and occasionally overlapping struggles. The net effect–people of all colors walking through Central Park on a hot, sunny Saturday wearing pink turbans–was dazzling in a rare way.

As the event petered out, at the gate to Hope Village, Sophia K. Franklin, a volunteer for the Komen organization, was dancing to lively music and wearing a pink turban. She’s a Queens resident, and a seasoned advocate. In the 17 years since her breast cancer diagnosis, she’s volunteered for Komen, worked with Gilda’s Club, and been honored by the Ford Warriors in Pink. I asked why she was wearing a pink turban, that day.

“Pink means hope. Pink means survival,” she told me. “Pink means I’ve got your back. Pink means I’m with you.”

 

Article by Elaine Scattner

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