Back in 1978, when Y-Me began in the south suburbs, information on breast cancer was scarce. A new patient often would receive little more than a brochure from her doctor, then be sent home to cope with a life-altering disease rarely discussed in polite company.
But in 2012, the landscape for breast cancer patients is vastly different. The Internet can instantly connect a woman with experts and others grappling with similar questions. Organizations offering social and emotional support are ubiquitous. In fact, a flurry of subsets meet the needs of special populations, ranging from African-Americans to LGBT.
The silence has been replaced by a bewildering cacophony of nonprofits, which experts said may have contributed to the demise of Y-Me, the Chicago-based national organization that filed for bankruptcy Tuesday and shuttered its operations.
"There are just so many avenues now to receive information that weren't around even 20 years ago," said Janine Gauthier, a clinical health psychologist and director of Rush University Medical Center's Cancer Integrative Medicine Program. "You can literally find information anywhere."
And therein lies part of the problem, fundraisers say. In good times, everyone can stay afloat. But in a dismal economy recovering in fits and starts, there are simply too many cancer organizations with overlapping missions vying for the same donors.
"To the public, we all look the same," said Y-Me's CEO Cindy Geoghegan in April, after the Susan G. Komen-Planned Parenthood controversy over funding. She was talking about the impact of the storm on Y-Me's donations, but her comments also could have served as a harbinger of her own group's downfall.
In the Chicago area, dozens of local resources are available for treating not just body — but mind and spirit. The large, academic medical institutions all have centers, complete with "concierges" or "navigators" matching patients with services, including one-on-one counseling and support groups — for family as well. Free lectures sort out the latest treatment options and insurance questions. Meditation, tai chi and massage can soothe the stress.
In addition, Gilda's Club also helps people regain control, as does the Cancer Health Alliance of Metropolitan Chicago, which operates wellness centers in Hinsdale, Northbrook, Homewood and other suburbs.
Then, a phalanx of national groups — such as Livestrong — also offer mutual support, along with a dizzying array on Facebook and other social media.
Karen Kramer, a spokeswoman for Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered, or Force, understands the crowded field. The group's audience has not even been diagnosed yet; they're carriers of the BRCA — or breast cancer — gene or have a family history of breast and ovarian cancer. But it's still a continual challenge to carve out an identity, she said.
"We're not only fighting for our airspace, but for dollars," Kramer said.
However, Y-Me was one of the pioneers, running the only multilingual, 24-hour breast cancer hotline in the country, staffed entirely by trained volunteers who were also survivors. The first phone lines were in the south suburban homes of founders Mimi Kaplan and Ann Marcou, who died in 1982 and 2004, respectively.
In its bankruptcy petition, Y-Me estimated it had assets of $100,001 to $500,000 and liabilities of $500,001 to $1 million.
"It's very sad, very emotional," said Sharon Green, the first CEO and a current board member. She acknowledged that Y-Me "recognized the saturation" and began trimming its portfolio, focusing solely on the hotline.
"Despite the new technologies, there simply is nothing that can replace the human touch and compassion that Y-Me provided with real people," she said.
Still, leaders tried to compete by expanding education programming, affiliates and other strategies that required adding staff, equipment and other expenses. "Once the money dried up, we were left with costly liabilities," Green explained.
A little more than a year ago, Y-Me started closing all programs except the hotline and trimming the infrastructure. "We just couldn't do it quickly enough," Green said.
Patrick Rooney, director of the Center for Philanthropy at Indiana University, said the sluggish economy has certainly taken its toll in the nonprofit sector, just as it has on businesses, and everyone is competing for both consumers and donors. "This story is more common than we know, with many charities closing every day, with little fanfare."
Between the start of the recession in 2007 and 2009, total giving dropped by more than 10 percent, and while the situation has improved during the last two years, it will take another decade to return to 2007 levels, he said.
"There will be nonprofit boards that will say, 'Based on what we see today, we're underwater financially ... and we don't see a robust recovery on the horizon anytime soon."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun