My wife Uzma died of breast cancer over two years ago. It was stage 4 breast cancer, also known as metastatic breast cancer (MBC), that took her.
According to the latest data from the American Cancer Society, over 280,000 American women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021, and over 43,000 will die from it. Less than 10% of women with breast cancer have MBC at initial diagnosis, but eventually, up to a third of women with early-stage breast cancer will have MBC. 100% of deaths due to breast cancer are due to MBC. And almost all women with MBC will die of MBC.
Normally functioning cells in our body have two key features: First, they don’t keep reproducing (make copies of themselves) indefinitely. Second, they stick to their own kind. Liver cells stick to the liver. Lung cells remain in the lung. Breast cells stay in the breast. And so on.
Cancer happens when a genetic glitch in a cell removes the restraint on reproduction. One cell begins reproducing without paying any heed to the need for more clones of itself — reproducing without restriction results in the growth of a tumor. Cancer becomes stage 4 when another genetic glitch causes cancer cells to lose the stickiness to their own kind. It’s as if they have become adventurous, straying far and away from their native organs. Cells from the breast, for instance, think nothing of making a home in the liver. Cells from the kidney may decide to dwell in the lungs.
Most cancer research aims to stop cells from reproducing without limits. Relatively little goes towards preventing cells from losing their stickiness. Most stage 4 cancer patients, including MBC patients, receive one trial after another of chemotherapy drugs developed to prevent tumors from growing in size.
Less than 5% of the national research funding goes to MBC. Let that sink in. Almost one-third of women with early-stage breast cancer go on to have MBC. All breast cancer deaths are due to MBC. But less than 5% of research funding goes to figuring out how to stop cancer from spreading and from killing our mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives.
Awareness campaigns are everywhere during October — Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Pink ribbons. Pink banners. Pink everything. The message everywhere? “Do your mammograms!”
The push for mammograms never cautions that one in five screening mammograms are false negatives, i.e., they fail to detect breast cancer. Younger women and those with dense breasts are at higher risk of false-negative mammograms. Uzma was one of those women. She had several annual negative mammograms, the last one of which was about three weeks before she found a cancerous lymph node in her armpit.
The other message that isn’t highlighted during Pinktober is that almost one-third of women whose cancer is detected by mammograms will go on to have stage 4 breast cancer. And we don’t know how to stop that.
As we open our wallets this month to give to charities that fight breast cancer, let’s give some thought to whether our money flows consistent with our values and preferences. Different organizations see their missions differently and spend accordingly. Before donating, it is not a bad idea to check out an overview of the charity at Charity Navigator. I compiled the tables below from data readily available on that website.
Program Expense Distribution of Selected Breast Cancer Charities*
Metavivor, a relatively new charity, is not as big as the other two in the tables above. However, its program spending is growing the most rapidly. And its spending is exclusively focused on MBC. Metavivor believes that 30% of funds given to breast cancer organizations should be dedicated to MBC. Remarkably, of the three charities, it spends the least amount of money to raise more money — less than a penny to raise every dollar. BCRF, while not exclusively focused on MBC, spends 100% of its program funds on research. Metavivor and BCRF have similar administrative expenses as a percentage of their budgets. And it’s quite a bit lower than Komen. In 2017, Uzma modeled for an Ulta Beauty campaign to raise money for BCRF.
Komen, which needs no introduction, is a fundraising juggernaut. Of the three charities above, it spends the highest proportion of its budget on administration. It also spends a lot of money to raise more money — 14 cents to raise every dollar. Fundraising expenses are 12.5% of its total spending; they are 9% and 0% of expenditures at BCRF and Metavivor, respectively. As an absolute number and a percentage of its budget, Komen spends the least on research of the three organizations. Charity Navigator gives a Charity Navigator Score to all charities based on a combination of financial and accountability & transparency measures. Komen’s score is the lowest of the three charities.
Is one of these three charities more worthy of our money than the others? That’s for each of us to decide based on what is most important to us. I think of the following questions when donating to breast cancer-focused charities:
- Is it more important to me that my donation goes to research?
- Do I want more of my hard-earned cash to go towards making more women aware of the importance of screening?
- Or do I prefer that more of it go to research?
- How much of it do I want to go research focused on stage 4?
- Do I care how much our cash a charity uses for administration and fundraising?
The answers to each of these questions may well be different for each of us. We don’t need to limit ourselves to the three charities in the table above. A search on Charity Navigator will reveal other charities specific to any other cause dear to any of us. All we need to do is to review that information and give our money to the charities that most match our values and preferences.