The Politics of Cancer

This week we learned that the Susan G. Komen Foundation, one of the most important cancer advocacy organizations, decided the cut its ties with Planned Parenthood. The Foundation said that they were concerned about giving donor money to an organization that is currently under Congressional investigation. Critics of this decision are suggesting that talk about Congressional investigation is a smokescreen for a far-right campaign to obliterate Planned Parenthood because it provides abortion services. Indeed, one of Komen's newly hired executives, who has run for public office, has advocated the elimination of Planned Parenthood funding -- one way of curtailing abortion services, which, constitute a mere 3% of the health services that the organization provides to mostly lower income women.

In his February 1 article in The Atlantic on the Komen decision to sever their partnership with Planned Parenthood, Nicholas Jackson wrote:

Karen Handel, who ran for governor of Georgia in 2010 and lost, despite an endorsement by none other than Sarah Palin, has been Komen's senior vice president for public policy since April 2011. On her campaign blog...Handel wrote: 'I will be a pro-life governor who will work tirelessly to promote a culture of life in Georgia. ... I believe that each and every unborn child has inherent dignity, that every abortion is a tragedy, and that government has a role, along with the faith community, in encouraging women to choose life in even the most difficult of circumstances. ...since I am pro-life, I do not support the mission of Planned Parenthood.'

It turns out that Handel, who may have played a major role in the Komen decision, also wanted to eliminate Planned Parenthood screenings for breast and cervical cancer.

As one of more than 10 million cancer survivors in America, the Komen decision makes me sick to my stomach. It is a sad day in America when something as non-ideological and non-partisan as cancer gets politicized. How can people who run one of the oldest and most influential cancer advocacy groups be so blind to the social realities of what it's like to be diagnosed with and treated for cancer? Do they have any idea what it's like to confront the existential imponderables of cancer remission?

When you are diagnosed with cancer your carefully constructed world falls to pieces. To quote one of my favorite West African sayings: when you get cancer, "you don't know your front side from your backside." Every assumption you had about your previous life falls by the wayside. An unexpected confrontation with mortality makes you numb to the world. You don't know what to do except to try to accept your situation and enter treatment. When you begin chemotherapy, you find yourself in rooms with other cancer patients and you are unwittingly introduced into the social reality of a new community. In the infusion room the often disruptive distinctions of class, race and gender fade away, for everyone there, no matter their social position, is in the same situation -- undergoing the physically painful and psychologically challenging regimens of cancer treatment. In the end, cancer treatment often leaves you isolated and alienated from friends and family. If the treatments work and you enter the nebulous and confusing arena of remission, you find yourself betwixt and between health and illness -- one test away from having to start another round of treatment.

The last thing that most cancer patients are going to think about is the politics of abortion. Being between things, most cancer patients discover that the world is more complex than the portrait painted by a zealot of any persuasion. Being forever between health and illness, most cancer patients have a non-partisan take on the disease, supporting organizations that fund cancer research, cancer screening, and survivorship programs, all of which help people of diverse social standing deal with the physical and psychological challenges of the disease.

In these hard times, the Komen Foundation's "pro-life" decision to sever ties with Planned Parenthood will comprise the health of millions of economically challenged women, which is likely to result in needless pain, suffering and death. In so doing they demonstrate how little they know about the people -- cancer patients -- they serve. Such are the real life consequences of zealotry in public life.

Having long been a beacon for women's health and for cancer advocacy, the Komen foundation seems to have shamefully succumbed to the ignorance of zealotry, which has no place in the world of cancer. They will probably lose much of their support -- sadly and rightfully so.