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Breast cancer survivors take us inside the latest Komen debate

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Pink is big for Crazy Girls and Susan G. Komen for the Cure, but that may be where the connection stops.
Photo: Bill Hughes

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, high season for Susan G. Komen for the Cure. But last week’s web headlines blasted that Komen refused a donation from Las Vegas topless revue Crazy Girls. Reader comments on the Huffington Post include promises never to give another cent.

Some of the anger is left over from last year, when Komen’s leadership made the controversial decision to defund Planned Parenthood (then swiftly reversed it amid mass outrage). Some is aimed at the perceived morality behind who can be part of “the boldest community fueling the best science and making the biggest impact in the fight against breast cancer.” The way several news outlets reported it, Crazy Girls was turned down due to a national Komen policy barring partnerships with businesses that sexualize women. While there is a policy stating that “no affiliate shall enter into monetary agreements from events or promotions held at adult venues ...,” director of Komen Southern Nevada Stephanie Kirby clarifies that it governs contractual partnerships, not donations.

Kirby says she was contacted once in September by a PR rep for Crazy Girls about a potential partnership involving proceeds from a show, but that no donation was actually offered or refused. "A donation is a donation. It's the official partnership that I can't enter into with an adult-themed business. I'm not saying the policy is right or wrong ... but it's a policy that our headquarters felt was necessary to put in place," she says. That means Crazy Girls is welcome to contribute outside the framework of an official partnership, that adult-themed businesses can donate and participate in Komen events but can’t use its logo or cross-promote on its website. Such are the nuances of “cause-related marketing,” but Kirby says the policy is also about respecting the sensitivities of survivors whose bodies and lives have been altered by breast cancer.

Katrina appreciates that “cushion.” She’s an 18-year survivor, but the breast she lost and unsuccessful reconstructive surgeries are still hard to face. "Sometimes, even after 18 years and 30 years of marriage to the same man, it’s still a sensitive subject for me, a very sensitive issue," she says. "Not that my breasts were my identity, but it’s a big difference when you’ve lost something that’s been part of you for your whole life. It’s just one of those feelings that I don’t know if someone can really understand or really grasp until that emotion, until it’s no longer there."

Vivid reminders of what Katrina lost are everywhere, especially in Las Vegas, where bodies are constantly on display. Most days she's okay with it. She's even able to laugh about her prosthesis. Komen's policy, she says, has been an assurance of greater sensitivity to her personal struggles. She applauds Crazy Girls for wanting to contribute, but she says she understands the line Komen drew on its partnerships, and that beautiful topless dancers are hard for some survivors to see, even with their shirts on. “I have no ill will toward women with nice breasts,” Katrina says, “but it takes me back.”

Looking down at a Polaroid taken before she was diagnosed, Linda says she doesn't recognize herself. The toned, 135-pound frame is gone, but the eyes are just as bright. She misses both of her breasts, many lymph nodes and her entire reproductive system. After the past three years of surgeries, chemo, skin-ruining radiation and intense medication that comes with chronic pain and serious weight gain, she's still not out of the woods. But she's thrilled to be alive, and she was a strong supporter of Komen until it pulled its support from Planned Parenthood. In response to that, she posted a YouTube video that has been viewed nearly 400,000 times. Opening her robe, she asked, "Do you see politics on my chest? Do you see Republican, Democrat, Tea Party or independent anywhere on my chest? I don’t. Do you see religion on my chest? Do you see Christian? Do you see Catholic? Do you see Jewish? Do you see Hindu? Do you see Muslim? ... Do you see moral values on my chest or what you believe to be our moral values? No, that’s not cancer at all." Then she told Komen to kiss her ass.

Linda's anger has subsided. She still believes Komen does a lot of good and that wonderful people work for the organization. But if Crazy Girls isn’t an appropriate partner, she questions Komen’s affiliation with the WWE, too. “I guess talented dancers with bare breasts are more objectionable than slamming somebody down and pretending you’re breaking their neck," she says. "I used to be strong and powerful, too. I miss that more than I do the boobies.”

Katrina and Linda may not share much beyond their scars and the frankness that comes from going through something that strips away the non-essential. Survivors don't fit into an easy category, because breast cancer attacks indiscriminately. If the disease doesn’t care about our personal differences, Linda muses, then maybe organizations dedicated to fighting it shouldn’t either.

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Erin got her first newspaper job in 2002 thanks to a campfire story about Bigfoot. In her award-winning work for ...

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