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New leader of Susan G. Komen for the Cure: Group has moved on from controversy

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FORT WORTH, Texas - The new leader of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization says it has moved on from the controversy that erupted 2 1/2 years ago over its decision, quickly reversed in an onslaught of criticism, to stop giving grants to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings.

"I think we as an organization have moved past it and I think that's the important thing — that we keep focusing on our mission," said Judy Salerno, who was named Komen's president and chief executive officer last June. "And frankly and I hope that people who still have some lingering concerns about us will know that we are focused: We have a singular focus, and that's saving lives from breast cancer."

Going forward, Salerno told The Associated Press on Friday, it will collaborate with other organizations on research to make the most of its more limited funds and work more efficiently toward finding a cure.

The world's largest breast cancer foundation felt the effects of the uproar in early 2012, in which people on either side of the abortion debate were angered. In the following months, organizers of Race for the Cure events saw dips in participation by as much as 30 per cent.

Financial statements from January 2014, the most recent available, show that Komen saw contributions — including donations and corporate sponsorships — drop by 22 per cent from about $164 million to $128 million from March 2012 to March 2013.

Dallas-based Komen, which has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in cancer research in the 32 years since it was founded in 1982, has acknowledged the effects of the controversy, but says economic uncertainty and the large number of other events vying for charity dollars played a role.

"There's no charitable organization which hasn't felt the pinch," Salerno said. "I speak to my colleagues often in other organizations and we're all competing for the same charitable dollar ... "

Many high-ranking executives left after the flap. Salerno replaced Komen founder Nancy Brinker as CEO, a post she'd served in since 2009. Salerno, a physician with a long career in public policy and research, said she was heartened when she took over, because the staff had kept their focus.

"I expected to walk into an organization where there are a lot of disillusioned people ... I found people who understood that we are a serious organization with serious work to do and that we should just roll up our sleeves and get on with what's important," said Salerno, who noted Komen is still largest funder of breast cancer research outside of the federal government.

The organization's reputation is on the mend, Salerno said, citing increased participation at some races this spring and increased giving in other parts of the country.

She also noted there were new corporate partnerships: "We're really stable and hoping to grow," she said.

Salerno, who spoke to the AP during Komen's three-day leadership conference in Fort Worth, said she also plans to focus on getting more funding to young researchers who may be passed over as access to federal money tightens.

They are also focused on making sure there are programs in place that help patients navigate their way through their breast cancer treatment.

Heather Cooper Ortner, who is chief executive officer of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, one of the organizations Komen has recently collaborated with, said that that she welcomes the focus on collaboration and sees it as perhaps the best way to find a cure.

She said not only is Salerno open and personable to work with, her "tremendous" background in research is a much-needed asset in the post.

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