Sisterhood Blog

Komen Founder Discusses Her Three Decades of Fighting Breast Cancer

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

  • Print
  • Share Share
komen.org
Nancy Brinker

Sometimes it seems as if October has always been Breast Cancer Awareness Month, with pink ribbons and fundraising events everywhere, but it was not at all the case three decades ago, when the words “breast cancer” weren’t uttered outside a hospital room and the norm for a woman being biopsied, if she was found to have cancer, was to wake up from the biopsy without a breast. The words “breast cancer” and “informed choice” were simply not part of the language; Susan G. Komen for the Cure has done much to change that.

Nancy Goodman Brinker founded the organization in 1982, two years after her sister Susan died of breast cancer at age 36. Now Brinker has written a memoir, “Promise Me: How a Sister’s Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer.”

Brinker, a former U.S. Ambassador to Hungary and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, spoke recently with The Sisterhood about Susan G. Komen’s evolution, and the work left to be done to make breast cancer death a thing of the past.

Debra Nussbaum Cohen: Today pink is ubiquitous in October, from supermarket shelves to accessories. Is this what you hoped for, when the first pink ribbons were handed out? Or do you think that perhaps it’s meaning has been diluted in some way by its very ubiquity?

Nancy Brinker: The first Race for the Cure was in Dallas in 1983. What I had in mind was that we had to have a grassroots-style organization. There was such a wall of fear around everyone. My sister loved pink. I realized it was a color women would accept wrapped around messages that maybe were scary. I knew it was kind of a feminine color and I thought that we could break through, because we sure weren’t being successful up until then.

Look, it’s become the symbol of fighting this disease and that’s a good thing. There’s not enough pink as long as someone dies of this disease every 69 seconds somewhere in the world. The other issue is that people saying that there are all these products. It all makes a difference, all of the funding that comes from it. Look how much work we have to do, c’mon. It doesn’t bother me at all.

The only thing that bothers me is people who give money to research without thinking about the whole picture. We fund everything from research to end-of-life issues. When I was growing up the issue was polio. As children Suzy and I saw our country martial against a disease that saturated every community. It was a simpler disease to fight than cancer, but it’s the same idea. Barriers have to be overcome and information, medicines and treatments have to be delivered. If we’re going to really make an impact, we’re going to have to fund what’s causing breast cancer and prevent it. In the meantime we have to keep women from dying from this.

How is it different today for a woman to have breast cancer than it was when your sister was diagnosed and treated?

We’re much more capable of reading the tumor type, we know what type of tumor a woman has and have some strategies that are extremely effective. SGK has funded almost every single advance in the science of breast cancer early in its development.

I’m not going to rest comfortably until I know that people diagnosed with this can live manageably, like people do with diabetes. The long-term goal is to learn how to stop breast cancer in its tracks before it’s apparent. We may not be able to eradicate breast cancer, but we’re going to eradicate death from it.

What is Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s greatest accomplishment?

Leading the global movement.

What’s next on the horizon for SGK and the breast cancer community? What isn’t being done that should be done?

We’ve almost eradicated death from early breast cancer. The 5-year survival rate in 1978 was 74 percent. Today it’s almost 98 percent in industrialized countries. That’s what we have to do around the rest of the world. We have to make that happen everywhere.

The next thing to do is to learn how to keep people who develop advanced disease from dying from it, with the long term goal of detecting it so early that it never presents as a deadly disease.

The economy has been difficult, but we’ve been very flat [in our fundraising] so that’s good. We’re managing to fund all of our goals. We raise between $370-400 million a year and have given over $150 billion.

Is there something about the breast cancer awareness movement that you’re unhappy about?

I’m puzzled by organizations that pay people to push SGK on the fundraising we do, and there are cancer organizations that fashion their ideas on what we do instead of being collaborative. It wastes a lot of money because there’s duplicative funding going on. People being territorial and ugly to each other is stupid. This isn’t a business, it’s a cause and a mission.

The other thing that bothers me is regulatory agencies because I’d like to see it speeded up, and promising treatments get to people faster.

I’m very satisfied with where we are, though we have to be a lot further on the global agenda. Breast cancer is a larger killer than AIDS, TB and malaria added up. We’re so far behind in many countries.

How has being Jewish informed your work, if at all?

Tremendously. I consider my religion a very important part of my life. Tzedakah, tikkun olam, all the principles and everything I was taught as a child, and all of my life by my parents. It’s a part of my life and a part of my thinking. I’ll quote Hillel. “If not me, who? If not now, then when?” That’s basically been the way I’ve been thinking all of my life.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Susan G. Komen, Nancy Brinker, Breast Cancer

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.