Brinker started on her mission with a few close friends and some vague ideas. In the early 1980s, no one talked about breast cancer at cocktail parties, much less in public. People, especially potential corporate donors, hesitated to help. This environment of dread made raising money difficult and fed the isolation and desperation that individuals felt when confronting the scourge. Brinker wanted to make a cultural and a clinical change, bringing the disease into the open, sparking research, and improving patient care. She started the organization in 1982 with $200 and a shoebox filled with names of people who might help in some way.
Now, 23 years later, the Susan G. Komen Foundation has grown into an international organization as well as the nation’s largest private funder of breast-cancer research and community outreach programs. It has awarded more than 1100 grants totaling more than $180 million for breast-cancer research and has also funded community-based screening, treatment, and education programs for the medically underserved, focusing on programs that address unmet breast health needs of local communities. It supports activities in 23 countries, funds research grants in eight countries, and has developed educational materials in 14 languages. The organization hosts online support groups and a help line to answer questions, boost morale, and inform people about local resources.
Brinker conceived of the Race for the Cure® Series, which fosters awareness about breast cancer and raises money to combat the disease. This event celebrates breast cancer survivors and empowers women to take charge of their breast health. The race’s participants have grown in number from 800 at the kick-off event in 1983 to an estimated 1.4 million in 2004.
Since her sister’s death, Nancy Brinker not only has established a worldwide source of information, support, and funding, but has faced her own breast cancer diagnosis (in 1984). With determination to provide an example of survivorship by fully participating in her own treatment decisions, she fought the disease and served as a symbol to many who have grappled with the realities of breast cancer. As a survivor, she has used her own experience to enhance understanding of breast cancer, and has contributed immeasurably to the international grassroots effort to obliterate the disease.
In addition to her work at the Foundation, she has spoken out about the importance of patients’ rights and medical advances in the area of breast cancer research and treatment and has advocated women’s health issues in congressional hearings. She has taken leadership roles in numerous private and public organizations and has testified before the United States Democratic Policy Committee’s Congressional Breast Cancer Forum. She has received numerous awards from a wide range of organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and American Society of Clinical Oncology.
Nancy Brinker transformed an issue that was not mentioned in polite conversation into an international discussion. The loss of her sister, compounded by her own breast cancer diagnosis, instilled her with powerful knowledge and motivation. She created an advocacy movement where none existed before, building a world-class foundation and spawning a global effort aimed at wiping out this ruinous illness.
by Evelyn Strauss