This is an October unlike any previous October. In the throes of a pandemic, American life has been turned upside down. Normal is now an aberration and aberrations are now normal. But when your opponent is cancer, you don’t look at the calendar. You just do the work.
“I think the pandemic has made any type of cancer harder,” said Kelly Moran, Executive Director of the American Cancer Society. “Cancer never stops.” And that is true, no matter that October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Breast cancer lurks just over the shoulder of every woman in America. It is the second most frequent cancer diagnosis after skin cancer. But the disease strikes at higher and more deadly rates in some populations than others. White women and African-American women are diagnosed most frequently followed by Asian-American, Hispanic, and Native American and Alaska native women.
While any women may become a victim of breast cancer, there are certain lifestyle choices that often increase the possibilities, including diet and exercise. Then, there are other things that are out of personal control like family history. But a diagnosis of breast cancer today is a light-year beyond what it was just a couple of generations ago, said Kelly.
In 1960, she said, “You would see a pretty consistent death rate.” For every 100,000 breast cancer diagnoses in that decade, “thirty percent would pass away…treatments were not a luxury.”
The darkest days of breast cancer may have passed but it’s still going to be awhile before all’s clear. But COVID-19 has not stopped the fight against the disease, said Moran. It has, however, complicated matters. October 2020 is dramatically different than any in years past.
“It (COVID-19) has hit non-profits the hardest,” said the cancer executive. “We have never faced a threat to our mission like this before.” Donations nationwide have plunged by as much as thirty percent. “At the end of the year,” she added, “it may be worse.” “All this time, people are still being diagnosed.”
In almost every phase of fundraising, the proverbial ‘Plan A,’ has quickly gone on to ‘Plan B,’ or dropped even further down the alphabet. “We have had to react very quickly,” said Moran. The pandemic has all but eliminated luncheons or dinners that in the past were sure-fire fund raisers. The organization has also adopted the use of virtual events, a not uncommon reaction to the pandemic in so many phases of American life.
“Our Gala has evolved into a virtual event,” said Moran. The ACS’s breast cancer walk in which thousands of survivors, family members of survivors and men, women and children would participate has evolved into “scavenger hunts anytime in October.” In addition, said Moran, “We’ve just talked to people about the need for fundraising.” By necessity, events have taken on whole new dimensions. “We’ve learned to work differently,” including a lot more time working the phone, using Zoom, “and stuff like that.”
The pandemic has also gutted offices nationwide. Social distancing, furloughs, and staff reductions, once afterthoughts, are now everyday realities all up and down the non-profit world. The impact of COVID-19 on ACS and thousands of other non-profits has been devastating. The sector is the third-largest private employer in the country with more than 12 million workers. In a study conducted by Johns Hopkins University, the pandemic led to a loss of 1.6 million jobs in just the first two months of the pandemic.
While every diagnosis of breast cancer is both sad and sobering, it is no longer a death sentence for every woman affected. Early detection has been a boon along with mammograms. “For women of average risk,” said Moran, “you have an option of beginning an early screening (at age 40-44).” For the next ten years, ‘You should get a yearly mammogram. At age 55, you can choose to go annually or every other year.” Family history should always be weighed into a decision.
But Colorado’s rate of breast cancer is not so reassuring. “Women in Colorado have higher rates of breast cancer,” said Moran. African-American women diagnosed in the state also have the state’s highest mortality rates from the disease. But survival rates are also on the upturn. “It’s incredible,” she said. “The survival rate is not at one-hundred percent and that’s what we’re going for.”
Reaching the ACS goal is a one-step-at-a-time undertaking. The pandemic has most assuredly slowed the pace in one of its core efforts, fundraising. “I’m very proud of ACS research program,” said Moran. “We have funded researchers that have led directly to breast cancer advancements. It’s really a challenge that the Society has come together to fight back against this.”
The pandemic’s impact on the American Cancer Society has completely upended the days of ‘business as usual.’ The drop in fundraising---by an estimated thirty percent---has been a blow. For now, ACS’s biggest question is ‘just how long will the disease have its stranglehold on business as usual?’ But pandemic or no, doctors will still be telling women the words none ever wants to hear; ‘You have breast cancer.’
Donations for ACS’s scavenger hunt effort can be made at www.makingstrideswalk.org/denverco.