A few years back, our friend Mary stayed with us for some months after her cancer surgery. Her tumor–which she named Binkie and kept in alcohol as a souvenir–was in her colon. She had what was originally meant to be a temporary ostomy. That means it wasn’t placed ideally for day-to-day maintenance.
Mary was on disability for what was supposed to be the period while she healed enough for a second surgery. It didn’t quite work out that way, and the period stretched out. Trying to get back into more normal activity, Mary decided to volunteer for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life. She couldn’t do the walk, but she could hand out t-shirts and herd participants.
She was very enthusiastic–at first. Then she grew disillusioned with what the ACS offered and the lack of distinction between raising “awareness” and raising funds for something like research on a cure. Mary wanted people to get screened and get real help in their recovery instead of going for a walk and getting a t-shirt.
My friend Jafsica lost an aunt she loved to breast cancer. Trying to combat the nightmares, Jafsica participated in the Relay for Life.
As a group, the University of Minnesota raised a lot of money for the American Cancer Society, which was great. I do feel, however, that they put too much money into the event. I’m all for a good time, but when it comes to charity, I prefer the charity gets more bang for our buck. I believe they mentioned that they got about $3o,000 from sponsors and that covered the overhead costs for running the event. This event in my hometown has live local bands and other forms of entertainment and ran on such a low budget, that I didn’t realize how extravagant some of Relay events were.
I found the speakers to be overly sentimental. Everybody seemed to look at cancer as if it’s a single entity. It’s not. It’s a plethora of diseases. Even breast cancer has several types and causes. If more people understood the underlying mechanisms (and how cells work), they might have a better understanding of cancers and their risk factors. Also, people kept talking about the importance of hope and faith, when I remember reading a study that showed these had no effect on cancer treatment (although a positive attitude sure does make the trip a lot more bearable.)
When she talks about sponsors here, it’s important to note that each walker is “sponsored” by others to raise funds. In other words, this event raised funds to cover this event. The way the charity supported cancer patients, their friends, and their families was by allowing them to participate–and giving them a t-shirt.
There is some value in that, but that isn’t what people think they’re doing when they participate in these events. They think they’re doing something more than “raising awareness” of cancer and getting together in the sun. (As Desiree Schell says when she’s talking about effective activism: Awareness? What is that exactly? Sure, it sounds good, but how do you measure whether you’ve done it right? What is a good outcome supposed to look like?)
The problem is this: The facts don’t match their story.
Actually, the facts strongly suggest a coverup. An online trail clearly shows non-profit organizations with national teams in the Relay for Life, and shows the ACS actively soliciting non-commercial organizations to participate in the program — right up until the original AlterNet article about the FBB controversy appeared. At which point, the national teams of these non-profits abruptly had their status changed to “Youth Affiliates.” And the online trail clearly shows that several non-profits are still participating as Youth Affiliates with national teams in the Relay for Life — a form of participation that is still being denied to the Foundation Beyond Belief, with no explanation from the ACS. (Supporting documents for this story are available on the author’s personal blog.)
What’s more, the American Cancer Society’s attempts at damage control have included contradictions, distortions, deceptions, and flat-out misinformation: about the Foundation Beyond Belief, about Todd Stiefel (the atheist philanthropist whose family offered the $250,000 matching offer in the first place), even about AlterNet. And its attempts at damage control have turned into an ugly attempt to blame Stiefel and the Foundation Beyond Belief for raising the issue in the first place. (Conflict of interest alert: While I have no direct relationship with Stiefel other than for the purposes of writing this story, his foundation supports many atheist and secular organizations, some of which I’m professionally connected with.)
Go read the whole sad story.