Finishing the iconic Susan G. Komen 3-Day walk last year was so important to breast cancer survivor Geri Bertolino, she wouldn't let even a serious knee injury stop her. The 57-year-old Sarasota woman hobbled across the finish line on crutches, joining the 1,300 walkers who completed the 60-mile trek to raise breast cancer funds and awareness.
Tuesday, she learned that the 3-Day, a fixture on the charity scene, is pulling out of Tampa Bay and six other U.S. cities in 2014, a victim of dwindling participation and funds.
"It's unfortunate it's ending due to financial reasons, not because we have no more breast cancer,'' said Bertolino.
The 2013 Tampa Bay 3-Day, scheduled for Oct. 25-27, and other Komen events such as the popular Race for the Cure will continue, officials said.
The Komen organization has been under fire since last year over plans to cut funding for breast cancer education and screening by Planned Parenthood. That effort was viewed by many as a statement against legal abortions, which Planned Parenthood also provides.
The resulting furor forced Komen to reverse its decision, and several senior executives resigned. But within months, Komen for the Cure races around the country reported that participation was down more than 25 percent. Critics questioned how Komen was using the money it raised, asking how much of it was going toward research.
The Planned Parenthood controversy was "just one of many factors" in the 3-Day reduction, Susan G. Komen spokeswoman Andrea Rader said in a statement Tuesday.
Like other charities, Komen has seen giving shrink due to the recession and has sought more cost-effective fundraisers. "It was time to re-evaluate the series to ensure we continue to return as much money as possible to the cause," the statement continued, explaining the exit from Tampa Bay, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Arizona.
The 3-Day, launched 10 years ago, will continue in what the group described as its strongest markets: Atlanta, Dallas/Fort Worth, Philadelphia, San Diego, Seattle, Minneapolis-Saint Paul and Michigan.
Dwindling participation over the past four years, the statement continued, meant Komen could not "financially sustain" the event in all 14 locations.
Overall, participation in the series has declined 37 percent in the last four years, according to a spokeswoman.
Through the years, breast cancer survivors, their supporters and people who have lost loved ones to cancer have tackled the walk. Participants usually camp out in tents at night. Last year's bay-area route went from Clearwater's Sand Key Park to St. Petersburg's South Straub Park; this year's course has not been announced.
Jennifer Smith of Tampa walked for her mother-in-law, who died from breast and ovarian cancer.
"I wanted to do something to honor her," Smith said.
In 2002, she walked for the first time in South Florida, completing the walk with 30 blisters, three torn toe nails and a broken bone in her foot. Then came walks in Tampa Bay in 2006 and 2008.
She called the cancellation of the Tampa Bay walk a "shame."
"It is a wonderful event," she said. "Not just for raising the money, but for the awareness and the community involvement it brings."
Kathy Foley, 67, of Valrico is a breast cancer survivor who walked the 3-Day in 2007. She met walkers from several states, including Texas and New York.
"I remember the camaraderie," she said. "I was so, so surprised. … We met people from everywhere."
She had planned to walk again for her 70th birthday. Upon hearing the 3-Day would not return to Tampa Bay next year, "I was very disappointed," she said.
Bertolino said she asked her husband to bring her crutches during last year's walk after she tore her meniscus. Crossing the finish line after enduring cancer surgery and treatment, she knew, would make an important point to her teenage daughter. "I wanted to show her I was okay, " Bertolino said.
She said she was most impressed by the participants who were walking solely to raise awareness. "That to me was even more admirable than someone like myself, who had cancer come into my life," she said.
Bertolino wondered how much the Planned Parenthood controversy played into Komen's decision. "That would be unfortunate because one thing has nothing to do with the other," she said. "Unfortunately, politics can get involved in things."
The 3-Day walk, some former participants said, has its flaws.
Monica Showalter, 40, walked in 2011 in memory of her aunt, who died March that year of breast and brain cancer.
"I would do it again," Showalter said, but "raising the money was a little ridiculous."
About half of her team dropped from the walk because they didn't meet the fundraising requirements.
The registration fee is $90 and participants must also raise a minimum of $2,300.
Komen is not the only charity that has scaled back fundraising events. In 2012, organizers of the Taste of Pinellas, a benefit for All Children's Hospital, announced that the event would be suspended after 26 years.
Several other nonprofits, including Infinity, which helps abused and neglected people; Personal Enrichment Mental Health Services Florida; and the Menorah Manor nursing home have launched "fantasy" fundraisers in recent years, asking patrons to make donations without the expense of producing gala events.
Colleen Caldwell of Brooksville said the Florida weather put a damper on her walk in 2008. Walkers at one point were forced to sleep in a parking garage due to a storm.
"It was so much discomfort," she said. She and her group stayed at a hotel.
"I think that if people are truly committed to the cause, they'll find a way to do it," Caldwell said. "At the end of the day, it's not really about the location, it's about the fundraising."
Kellie Dupree, the Sarasota-based spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood's southwest and central Florida affiliate, had not heard about the cancellation of the 3-Day event in Tampa until a reporter called. She said she figured the fallout from last year's dispute was old news by now.
"I know that Planned Parenthood and Komen have really mended fences," she said, adding the two organizations had teamed up on a number of initiatives.
She acknowledged some antiabortion advocates might shun Komen because of its ties to Planned Parenthood.
"It's always a possibility but I would hope it's not," said Dupree. "I'd hope women's health would not be politicized."
Times staff writer Mary Jane Park contributed to this report. Laura C. Morel can be reached at [email protected] or (813)226-3386.