Across the elevators on the first floor of the Brittonfield Parkway Hematology building in East Syracuse stands a big wooden door. Even from far away one can’t mistake the light pink sign taped to it that reads, “Race for the Cure.” This door leads to a small room that contains fundraiser posters, magnets, pamphlets, brochures, as well as the women who try to make a difference in upstate New York by helping to find a cure for breast cancer. Inside this door holds the Susan G. Komen Central New York affiliate organization.
Other than the United States government, the Susan G. Komen Organization has put more money into breast cancer research than any other entity, and it all started as a promise between sisters.
More than 30 years ago, Nancy Brinker started the organization in honor of her sister, Susan Komen, who lost the battle to breast cancer at the age of 37. The promise this organization held then and continues to hold is “to save lives and end breast cancer forever by empowering people, ensuring quality care for all, and energizing science to find the cures.”
“The not-for-profit organization was founded during a time when people normally didn’t talk about cancer,” said Kate Flannery, executive director of Susan G. Komen Central New York. “We didn’t have the advanced treatments we have now and surgery, as well as chemotherapy was always the answer. The evolution to how we respond to this disease has grown dramatically. Screening, which has changed how we are informed about breast cancer, also tells us that there are a lot of different types of breast cancer, and each type is identified by the cells in the breast that become malignant.”
Flannery believes that education has to continue about the myths versus the facts of breast cancer. “I recently spoke with a woman who said she didn’t need a screening because she didn’t have any family history of breast cancer, but only 9 percent of the women diagnosed have a family history,” Flannery said. “Family history is a very strong indicator, but there are still many we don’t know about genetically or environmentally speaking, so it’s really important to get the facts across because women don’t know their own risks.”
The Susan G. Komen Organization is headquartered in Dallas, Texas, where it was founded and has 85 affiliates all across the United States. Every affiliate sends a percentage of their revenue directly to the fund of the organization because they found that they could collectively make a greater impact and centralize where most of the breast cancer is happening. “I personally don’t need to do breast cancer research locally because I don’t care where it’s happening, as long as it is happening in the most effective and efficient way possible,” Flannery said. “However, I do want to have the dollars we raise here in Syracuse help women locally. I want to provide treatment, screening, education and support to the women who need it locally first.”
When Flannery first started as the executive director of the organization 12 years ago, she was most drawn to its grassroots presence in helping local women and being able to contribute and help the global or national footprint in the research.
Flannery graduated from Syracuse University with a masters degree in social work and has always worked in the community. “I have always been an advocate for women and children,” she said. “If you ask me what I do, I do it in a variety of ways, but I’m always promoting social justice, which as it pertains to Komen is making sure there is a health parity, and to always respond to healthcare disparities. I also promote human dignity, which is all about how we treat people who are vulnerable, and breast cancer patients and their families are among the most, so it’s crucial that we provide support.”
The Susan G. Komen Organization is in the process of a merger, where is is to become the upstate New York affiliate instead of the Central New York affiliate. The organization is combining the regions of Buffalo, Elmira and Albany. Geographically, every person who works in these offices continue to support their local region, but it is easier to centralize the operations and receive more resources for impact.
Along with the board of directors and the Komen staff come the volunteers, who do anything and everything they can to help. “Really everything is a volunteer job, and this organization has quintessentially grown out of the volunteer movement,” Flannery said. “They make sure we are following our initiatives to making an impact on breast cancer. They make sure we are making informed choices with our grant making. For instance, there are underserved and underinsured women who need more support than women who have private insurance and we know that African American women have a greater mortality rate than white women, so that is part of our initiative and priority for how we grant.”
Volunteers must first meet with Flannery or Jessica Bell, director of operations and finance, so they can discuss what their area of interest is. “We won’t put someone who doesn’t want to talk to people at an educational booth,” Flannery said. “We want it to be a successful match, and an increasing amount of people are coming to us because they want to contribute. They would love to write out a check, but if contributing and volunteering is all they can give then we will always, always welcome them.”
The Susan G. Komen Organization sets up an educational booth every year at the New York State Fair, which is its largest learning outreach. It tries to reach out to a lot of different women, who they otherwise wouldn’t see, from rural areas to provide access to quality information. In October, which is Breast Cancer awareness month, the organization puts on various third-party events, like speaking at local hospitals and hosting Pink Tie Guy, a fundraiser that attempts to include men to support breast cancer and represent the organization.
“Men are impacted by breast cancer just as much as women are,” Flannery said. “99 percent of the people diagnosed are women, but it impacts families, communities and businesses, so we really want to engage men in some way.”
The organization’s largest annual fundraiser is the Race for the Cure, which started in 1995. “Race for the Cure is purely a celebration of survivors and also a moment to remember the one’s we have lost,” Flannery said. “It creates an opportunity for survivors to celebrate and heal together and for friends and families to show their love and support. We raise valuable dollars that save lives. I don’t mind talking about the cash because the cash leads to research. So that is why we are all there that morning.”
The Race for the Cure will take place May 20, 2017, 8 a.m., at the New York State Fairgrounds.
“The biggest challenge we face here is the competition not only in the not-for-profit sector, but with Race for the Cure being our biggest fundraiser, all different no-for-profits like Mud Run and Color me Red are taking over the space that used to be purely ours,” said Flannery. “They are wonderful organizations, but this tells us that we need to go about a new way for fundraising. Of course, this challenge doesn’t come close to the fact that we still don’t have the cure.
“Yes, we continue to get better with our targeted responses to breast cancer and it is not a death sentence by any means. But we cannot minimize that fact that women die of this disease, and this is what fuels my determination each and every day.”