Claire Makes It Big
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Claire Makes It Big
When our minds wander to the unthinkable, breast cancer tops that black list of God-help-me scenarios, conjuring up images of surgery, mutilation, chemotherapy and its attendant nausea, and hair loss (as terrifying as losing a breast for some); of helpless partners convincing us (and themselves) that we're still as desirable as before; of living with a constant, insidious fear that it's never really over. It's about our breasts, for chrissake, the embodiment of femininity, sex appeal, and motherhood. It is a disease of agonizing choices (Christina Applegate's preventive double mastectomy) and unfathomable compromises (Elizabeth Edwards' deathbed denouement with her wayward husband). This is what breast cancer means to many women, and it's why, unlike even ovarian or uterine cancer, it makes us suckers for every pink-ribbon trinket and walkathon solicitation that crosses our paths.
In this environment, it's difficult to ask questions. "You know, breast cancer has been untouchable for a while. If you question anything, well then, you must hate women," says Gayle Sulik, author of Pink Ribbon Blues. "That mentality makes it really hard to say, 'What's working? What's not working?' The goal is eradication. Isn't that what we say we want?" There is no denying that money raised for research has been instrumental in the fight against breast cancer. Sophisticated digital mammography has reduced the risk of false-positive diagnoses; the discovery of genetic markers has allowed women with increased risk for breast cancer to weigh their preventive options early; drugs like Herceptin, which targets the proteins responsible for a cancer cell's growth, have demonstrated remarkable results in the 20 percent of patients afflicted with the particularly aggressive HER2-positive form of breast cancer. Doctors warn that there are never any absolutes when it comes to breast cancer, but for the 60 percent of women diagnosed at the earliest stage, survival is virtually guaranteed.
The Breast Cancer Society, based in Mesa, Arizona, has made an art form of this kind of creative accounting. Founded in 2007 by James T. Reynolds II, now 37, the organization provides critically ill breast cancer patients across the country with cash grants to pay for everything from groceries to medical bills, Reynolds says. In 2009 (the most recent year for which tax records are available), the BCS claims it raised $50 million in contributions, the bulk of which went to supplying medicines to hospitals in Third World countries like Guatemala and Ethiopia, ostensibly for the treatment of breast cancer. (Reynolds says he has visited only three of the eight hospitals that purportedly received these medicines.) Press him on his group's finances and he admits that, in fact, BCS raised just $15 million in cash donations in 2009. The other $35 million represented his estimate of medications that the BCS accepted as gifts or bought at a major discount but then listed on its books as having much higher values. For example, BCS reported that it sent $8.8 million worth of goods to hospitals in East Asia. "I'd have to look it up, but it probably cost us maybe $40,000 to procure and distribute that," Reynolds concedes in a phone interview. Where do these medicines come from? Reynolds says he gets them from other organizations, including the Ontario-based Universal Aide Society, which saw its Canadian charitable status revoked two years ago for malfeasance. (Its employees used funds to finance vacations and other personal expenses.) This so-called "gifts in kind" scheme makes BCS seem a whole lot bigger than it actually is and obscures the fact that the group spent 90 cents of every dollar that it raised on telemarketers, not patients.
This is all great in theory and a good blueprint for us to work towards, but we are a long way from this vision right now. It is going to be a huge transition for companies to stop blending synthetic fibres with natural ones,