While one in 31 American women dies every year from breast cancer, one in three dies of heart disease. Yet heart disease and the organizations that raise money for it take a backseat when it comes to fundraising.
Although heart-related fatalities are more prevalent, aggressive fundraising efforts such as the annual Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October raise significantly more funds for breast cancer organizations.
By the end of their 2013 fiscal year, the American Heart Association, which also includes the American Stroke Association, received roughly $687 million from public support — $200 million less than the entire American Cancer Society organization received that same year.
According to ACS financial reports, the organization’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer initiative accounted for 12 percent of its special event revenue, bringing in $61 million alone.
The same year, more than 13,000 Arizona residents died of heart disease, according to statistics from the Arizona Department of Health Service, nearly 17 times the number of women statewide who died from breast cancer.
In comparison to the volume of publicity and resources going towards cancer research, nothing is going toward advanced heart disease research, said Dr. Zain Khalpey, cardiac surgeon and director of the Heart Transplant and Mechanical Circulatory Support Program at the University of Arizona. Heart disease, such as valvular and coronary, leads to heart failure.
“It (heart disease) is a very understated disease,” Khalpey said. “The research is still a decade behind cancer research.”
Yet Khalpey and other health experts and organization officials say there is no clear explanation for the funding gap.
Time to educate the public
Kelly Grose, senior vice president for the American Heart Association’s Greater Phoenix Division, said she attributes the funding discrepancy to a lack of awareness by the public.
“It is shocking to me how many people you talk to that really believe that cancer – any form of cancer – is the No. 1 killer,” Grose said. “I really do think it’s awareness.”
Grose said she does not view cancer organizations as competitors because the work they do is so valued. But the fundraising discrepancies do present a challenge for her organization. The biggest hurdle is educating people about the disease.
“There are many worthy charities and organizations out there that are raising money for causes that are really important,” Grose said. “The more organizations that are out there the harder it is to convince people that those funds need to come to your organization.”
Heart disease has layers of preventable and unpreventable causes. It can arise from factors like diabetes, being overweight or excessive alcohol use, according to the Centers for Disease Control website, but it can also be a result of problems associated with heart failure, such as coronary heart disease.
“Heart failure is like cancer, and that’s what people don’t see,” Khalpey said, adding he has loved ones who have suffered from both lung and breast cancer. “It’s the cancer of our society.”
Twenty to 40 percent of heart disease patients nationwide will die within a year while waiting for heart transplants, Khalpey said. Many of these patients could be helped with the new technology that health experts including Khalpey are producing, such as stem cell research, 3D printing — the ability to print human tissue using a 3D printer — as well as salvaging organs from those whose death was non-cardiac related.
The technology is there, he said, but the funding is not.
“There’s no question of loyalty,” he added, “because my team is working 24/7.”
Breast cancer deaths on the decline
For breast cancer organizations, public awareness has proven to be particularly effective in terms of research and fundraising.
Brittany Conklin, media relations manager for the American Cancer Society’s branches in Arizona and New Mexico, said the 101-year-old organization is the leader when it comes to cancer.
“With that just comes the name recognition,” Conklin said.
Fundraising efforts such as cancer walks play a huge role in gaining public support, she said, adding more than 20,000 people participated in their Making Strides against Breast Cancer walk in Arizona this month.
The money raised from these events benefits research and funds resources to provide support for patients battling breast cancer.
“I can’t really answer why people choose one charity over another … or why people have a personal affinity with breast cancer,” Conklin said. “Many people know people who have breast cancer, and it may hit home for them.”
Breast cancer research is however, making tremendous strides.
Conklin said breast cancer deaths have plummeted 34 percent since 1991.
The dollars and cents of heart disease
The cost of treating heart disease is actually more costly that treating cancer, Khalpey said.
The CDC estimates that heart failure costs the nation an estimated $32 billion per year. In 2010, breast cancer cost the nation about half that.
The prevalence of heart disease alone is much more than breast cancer, and to tackle the disease, researchers need more resources and funding, he added.
“If you have breast cancer, you can walk in and you can have your chemotherapy and your radiotherapy and you can walk away,” Khalpey said. “The whole point of that is, walk … If you have heart failure, you can’t walk, because you can’t breathe.”
Alison Dorf is a reporter with for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org