Medicine: A Race That All Will Win
Jerusalem’s streets have known the tramp of Assyrians, Babylonians and Greeks, of Romans, Byzantines and Crusaders, Gay Priders and political protesters, of the disabled and the unemployed.
On October 28, 2010, however, they were trodden by marchers of a different stripe: breast cancer survivors along with activists, public figures, dignitaries and philanthropists from Israel and around the world, rallying to enhance advocacy, awareness, screening, detection, treatment and cure of breast cancer.
Hosted in Israel for the first time, the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure has been run in 140 cities since its 1983 launch, involving more than 1,600,000 people and serving as a life-saving vehicle in raising awareness and spreading the message of early detection. SGK is the world’s largest breast cancer organization and a leading catalyst in the fight against a scourge that kills a woman somewhere in the world every 68 seconds. It joined with Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America and the City of Jerusalem to bring to Israel its battle against breast cancer.
“We’re adding the energy of 300,000 Hadassah members and associates worldwide to that of the more than 100,000 Komen volunteers in 125 United States and international affiliates to address this critical health threat,” said Nancy Falchuk, Hadassah national president, when the partnership was announced last April.
Israel’s first race for the cure was the centerpiece of an SGK-sponsored week. For seven days, the Old City walls glowed with pink light at night. Dozens of global experts—physicists, nanotechnologists, bioengineers, geneticists, imagers and oncologists—met in an invitation-only think tank to trigger ideas for more cost-effective, portable and accurate early detection and screening for women’s cancers, with SGK seed grants of up to $100,000 awarded to the best ideas.
The week also saw the official inauguration of the Israel Breast Cancer Collaborative, a partnership between SGK and Israeli NGOs to enhance advocacy, awareness, screening and treatment of breast cancer in Israel.
“The collaborative takes our relationship to the next level,” said Ambassador Nancy G. Brinker, founder and chief executive officer of SGK, when the initiative was announced (click here to read our profile of Ambassador Brinker). “In partnership with the City of Jerusalem, Hadassah, government leaders, advocates and our global partners, we will continue working to address critical issues in breast cancer for the women of Israel and the world.”
While this was the first Israeli Race for the Cure, the link between Israel and SGK goes back years, with Hadassah a longtime ally in the group’s breast cancer outreach. SGK’s first international research grant went to Israel 16 years ago; since then, grants totaling almost $2 million have been awarded to Israeli organizations—among them, the Hadassah–Hebrew University Medical Center, the Weizmann Institute of Science and local cancer associations. Three quarters of the money raised by October’s Jerusalem race is earmarked for programs in Israel, with the remainder going to SGK worldwide outreach.
The route chosen for the walk, close to the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, resonates with the idea of people of many faiths joined together to end a plague that affects all. Local Hadassah affiliate Hadassah-Israel was the race’s convening NGO. “We’re an organization based on voluntarism, with women’s health one of our major emphases, so we fit in with the Komen approach,” says Norma Potashnik, Hadassah-Israel president. “We’re involved in breast self-examination programs in the community and in outreach to women less likely to seek medical attention—the ultra-Orthodox, Ethiopians, Russians and Filipinas.”
“Our role in the walkathon was essentially as foot soldiers,” says Lona Lehr, Hadassah-Israel project facilitator. “We publicized it and signed up participants at malls and megastores countrywide as well as through local women’s organizations and Hadassah institutions in Israel—our hospitals… schools, college, youth villages and Young Judaea. On the race day, we distributed water bottles, snacks and T-shirts at the race’s start and joined the [event] at its end.”
Jerusalem police estimated that at least 7,500 joined in the race—way beyond organizers expectations. Hundreds were bused in from Beersheba, Haifa, Druze villages and Israeli Arab villages. There were Hadassah nurses and patients, 350 Young Judaeans, 70 students from Hadassah College Jerusalem, mothers pushing strollers, grandmothers with parasols, all walking together as temperatures climbed into the 90s.
“Komen is unfamiliar to Israelis, but everyone has heard of Hadassah,” says Barbara Sofer, public relations director for Hadassah in Israel. “That made us an important partner, from forming a bridge to Israeli culture to creating links with Israeli institutions to recruiting the marchers.”
Sofer was among the marchers. “I was there for four friends: Sarah, who died of breast cancer two years ago; Rebecca, who’s currently battling it; Rachel, whom it killed 10 years ago; and Leah, who carries the breast cancer gene. And I was there for myself, for my daughters and my granddaughters, too.”
Another Jerusalemite on the trail was the city’s mayor, Nir Barkat. “As a runner, I know the power of such events to unite people,” he says. “We have many different religions and nationalities in Israel. The walkathon brought them together in fellowship with those confronted with this terrible disease. I’m honored to open the gates of our unique city to any and all people seeking a cure for breast cancer in our lifetime.”
The municipality was involved in every aspect of the race, says Stephan Miller, the city’s foreign affairs aide and foreign media spokesman to the mayor. “Mr. Barkat…himself led the city’s participation in the event….”
Shoulder to shoulder with Israeli marchers were members of the Israel Mission Delegation, survivors and activists from around the world. Among them—Brinker; United States Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, breast cancer advocate; his wife, Hadassah Lieberman, breast cancer survivor and SGK global ambassador; Ned L. Siegel, United States ambassador to Israel; his wife, Stephanie Siegel, breast cancer survivor and SGK Advocacy Alliance board member; and Jennifer Griffin, breast cancer survivor and Fox News Pentagon correspondent.
“Cancer is a global health crisis,” says Senator Lieberman. “Collaborations like this foster a global response, united around the common goal of addressing and ending breast cancer anywhere it is found.”
Brinker was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1984, two years after founding Susan G. Komen for the Cure (then the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation). She had promised her sister Susan, who died in 1980 of breast cancer at age 36, that she would do all she could to stop the disease.
During the race, Brinker, Lieberman and Siegel wore pink T-shirts donned by cancer survivors. The T-shirts, says SGK board member Dorothy Paterson, a survivor and pink shirt wearer, were a “powerful face of hope. Others saw that people make it through. Even men survivors wore pink T-shirts, which says something about their security in their manhood!”
Not all Israeli survivors were willing to don pink. “The Israeli context is not the American,” says Lehr. “Although Israeli women talk more openly about the disease than they once did, the ‘C-word’ is still unspoken among several groups.”
Breast cancer is the most common woman’s cancer in Israel, accounting for nearly 30 percent of all cancers newly diagnosed. Its incidence continues to increase, with about 4,000 people a year diagnosed.
“In bringing the Race for the Cure to Israel, our intent was to augment, not supplant, the good work that breast cancer organizations are doing here,” says Brinker. Hadassah’s oncology department, for example, has received SGK grants for its comprehensive and multidisciplinary breast care treatment and its research into the disease.
“Through events like the…race, we’ve invested more than $1.5 billion, making us the largest source of nonprofit funds in the world dedicated to fighting breast cancer,” she adds. “Komen for the Cure is the world’s largest grass-roots network of breast cancer survivors and activists fighting to save lives, empower people, ensure quality care for all and energize science to find the cures.”