By Corrie MacLaggan
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Rebecca Reza has participated in fundraising races held by Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the world's largest breast cancer charity, for the past five years. She planned to sign up for the next Race for the Cure in El Paso, Texas, with her cousin.
But Reza is now hesitating to don Komen's signature pink baseball cap and join breast cancer survivors and their supporters in the march on February 19.
The race will be the first such charity event anywhere for Komen since an uproar erupted last week over its decision to cut funding to women's health organization Planned Parenthood, thrusting it into the middle of the nation's polarizing debate on abortion.
Komen reversed course after an outcry on social media sites as well as among its own affiliates, and from people who support both groups. That reversal in turn drew fresh criticism from Komen supporters who oppose the abortion services some Planned Parenthood centers provide.
In announcing the policy change, Nancy Brinker, who founded the charity in 1982 to honor her sister, Susan, who died of breast cancer acknowledged the organization had "made mistakes." And, its senior vice president for public policy and chief lobbyist, Karen Handel, a Republican who once ran for governor of Georgia on a platform of defunding Planned Parenthood stepped down.
The true test over how deeply the controversy has affected Komen's grassroots base begins with the race in El Paso and those that follow as supporters on both sides of the abortion issue consider whether to show up. Five events are scheduled for March and 12 for April, according to the Komen website.
"We've kind of put everything on hold - we haven't decided whether to race yet," said Reza, whose grandmother died of breast cancer in 1993. "It probably won't make a big difference to them, but for us personally, I don't feel comfortable paying money into this event when all of this is going on."
She said Planned Parenthood, which provides birth control, abortions and other health services, "is a huge necessity" and that it's still unclear to her whether their clinics will receive money from Komen.
Komen's more than 140 races worldwide every year help drive nearly $420 million in donations of all kinds annually. Such sums make Komen a powerhouse among private breast cancer charities, allowing it to fund education efforts, research and screenings.
Chris Berry decided to sign up for the El Paso race after "a brief moment of concern."
His hesitation disappeared at the thought of his great-uncle, who is suffering from breast cancer and has had a rough time with chemotherapy. It is a rare occurrence among men, with the ratio of female to male breast cancer estimated at 100 to 1.
"He's the reason I'm doing it," said Berry, who posted signs in his family's restaurant, The Good Luck Cafe, seeking participation from customers and employees. "We're trying not to get caught up in the politics of it."
Last year, about 12,000 people registered for the El Paso event and 20,000 people showed up, including family members and supporters of race participants, Komen's local affiliate said.
The event - which takes place at a stadium where the El Paso Diablos play minor league baseball - raised more than $500,000 in individual contributions, sponsorships and entry fees. About 75 percent of that went to help local organizations provide health services, screening and treatment to underserved and uninsured people. The rest paid for breast cancer research.
WAITING TILL THE LAST MINUTE
Komen's races attracted 1.6 million participants last year, often with school, neighborhood and workplaces organizing teams of women and men of all ages, and its pink ribbons are a well known symbol of support for the fight against breast cancer.
Komen officials at the organization's headquarters declined to comment on whether they expect to see the same enthusiasm for their events in the wake of the very public controversy.
But Komen officials in El Paso expect the same number of participants to show up this year as last. They said it is hard to know most of the city's participants register in the final two weeks rather than signing up online in advance.
Eight days ahead of the race, the affiliate had raised 28 percent of its $85,000 goal for individual fundraising, according to its website.
Stephanie Flora, executive director of Komen's El Paso affiliate, and other Komen officials are busy visiting local malls to register people for the race.
"We're really hopeful that people will continue to come out" and that they'll "really remember that it's for the uninsured men and women in the community that need these services," Flora said.
In El Paso, a heavily Catholic and Hispanic border city of almost 650,000 people, nearly a quarter of residents live below the poverty level, according to Census data.
Flora said the controversy did not have a local flavor because El Paso does not have a Planned Parenthood clinic. Planned Parenthood's six El Paso clinics, which did not provide abortions, closed in 2009 because of the economic downturn, according to the El Paso Times.
For El Paso participants the event is deeply personal and far removed from abortion politics.
It is about their memories of loved ones lost, their own battles with the disease, and the goals of finding a cure and raising money for health care services in a community where more than one in four residents lack health insurance.
This year's race, El Paso's 20th, will be Janie Shockley's 20th as well. During the early years, she participated in honor of a sister-in-law, a survivor. Along the way, Shockley herself became a survivor.
"All the ladies in pink I saw all the years at the race - never did I think I was going to be one of those, but that's what happens in life sometimes," said Shockley, a former board member of the El Paso Komen affiliate.
For Elizabeth Zaborowski, who plans to attend the race, the key moment comes in a ceremony afterwards, when she and others who have suffered from breast cancer gather in groups according to how long they've survived.
"When you're walking toward the stage," Zaborowski said, "you just feel the happiness, the joy, the sadness, all at once."
(Editing by Michele Gershberg and Jackie Frank)