Twenty years ago, Pat Siger, a member of the National Council of Jewish Women Pittsburgh Section, happened to see an article in a magazine about a run in support of breast cancer awareness, research and treatment.
At the time, the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure was relatively new, and only happening in about 20 cities across the country. Still, the article caught the attention of Siger who, along with Laurie Moser and Eileen Lane, was looking for a way to increase volunteer engagement for NCJW. The three women liked the idea of engaging the community in a race for breast cancer awareness, so, without any prior experience in managing an event of this kind, they went for it.
That was back in 1992. Fast-forward 20 years, and Komen Pittsburgh has become an institution embraced by tens of thousands of people across 30 counties in the region, raising millions of dollars for the cause.
This Sunday, May 13, marks the 20th anniversary of the Komen Pittsburgh Race for the Cure, which has come a long way from its humble beginnings.
Its founders remembered its start with humor and fondness.
“The runners were at the start line, but some were facing one direction, and others were facing the other way,” Moser remembered. “Sophie Masloff was mayor at the time, and she actually shot off a gun to start the race.”
“It was ragtag,” recalled Siger, who said she knew almost all of the 3,000 people who showed up to race that first year. She and her husband, Alan, picked up the trash themselves when the race was over.
Ragtag no more, the Komen Pittsburgh Race for the Cure has evolved into a regional event, drawing more than 30,000 participants each year, and has raised more than $15 million dollars to support the Mammogram Voucher Program (MVP), which provides free mammograms to underinsured women, and a variety of other services.
“This is Pittsburgh, the most generous city in America, per capita,” Siger said. “I did hope and anticipate success because we are such a good town.”
“This city is amazing,” said Moser, who is a breast cancer survivor. “The city has supported this event through its corporations, foundations, women’s clubs, the Boy Scouts. And the reason why the race has this wide support is because breast cancer crosses every social and economic barrier.”
Beginning with 800 people in Dallas in 1983, the Komen Race for the Cure has grown to more than 150 races on four continents, with 1.6 million people participating.
Although NCJW no longer manages the race in Pittsburgh — Komen Pittsburgh affiliated with national Komen in 2005 — NCJW is still committed to raising awareness about breast cancer, which disproportionately affects Jewish women due, in part, to the high prevalence of BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic mutations in Jews of Ashkenazi descent.
While BRCA1 and 2 mutations are rare in the general population, between 8 and 10 percent of Ashkenazi Jewish women carry a mutation in those genes. Women who carry a BRCA1 or 2 genetic mutation have an increased risk of developing breast cancer. While women in the general population have about an 8 percent chance of developing breast cancer by age 70, women who carry a BRCA gene mutation have a 40 to 90 percent risk of developing cancer by age 70, according to the Komen website.
While the Komen races have made a difference in the lives of countless women, the organization still has work to do in terms of prevention of breast cancer, Moser said.
“The one sadness I have is that the number of women dying from breast cancer hasn’t really changed over the last 20 years,” she said. “We have a tough job ahead of us.”
Despite negative publicity last winter when the national Komen organization announced its plan to pull the plug on funding to Planned Parenthood — then quickly reversed its decision following massive protests — the number of registrants and sponsors for the local race has not declined, according to Kathy Purcell, executive director of Komen Pittsburgh.
“It’s been a difficult year for us,” Purcell said. “We’re not used to bad publicity. We know we’ve annoyed people on both sides of the issue and caused people to doubt us. But we were not part of the decision making [on the Planned Parenthood de-funding].”
“We went to national [Komen] to let them know what our constituents said,” she continued. “We approved a vote of no confidence [in the national Komen board of directors], and we were pleased when they reversed their decision, but the damage had been done.”
Purcell said that Pittsburghers have recognized the need to support Komen despite the recent controversy.
“The needs of the community have not changed,” she said. “Last year, through our mammogram voucher grant, we provided 10,000 mammograms to women and men without health insurance. In 2012, we are putting $1.8 million dollars in grants back into the community. Through the years, we have put over $16 million to grants, and $7 million to research, and have funded fellowships in radiology and breast surgery at AGH (Allegheny General Hospital), UPMC and Magee (Magee Womens Hospital).”
The good works of Komen Pittsburgh, and its evolution in the last 20 years, can serve as a model for other causes important to the women of Pittsburgh, said Siger.
“The lesson here is that women will coalesce in a grassroots effort around something that is important to them, and that’s how change is made,” she said.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)