Nancy G. Brinker: For the Love of a Sister
Ambassador to the world, she carries the banner to eradicate breast cancer on a global scale.
Most of us have seen the waves of pink-clad walkers and pink-lit city structures. We have come to know that October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. Over the years, many organizations have made valiant attempts to bring awareness to the disease. But it took a single promise made to a dying sister that would launch a mission to bring breast cancer awareness into every household and on the world stage.
Woman of Accomplishment
Nancy G. Brinker, former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Hungary and U.S. Chief of Protocol is well known as a communications and policy expert. She is a four-time Presidential Appointee, twice with Senate Confirmation. Her distinguished career has led her to audiences with world leaders, corporate executives, academic thought leaders, and experts in medical science and healthcare.
She has many feathers in her cap to be sure. But it is fulfilling her sister’s wish that has created the most enduring legacy, directly impacting the lives of everyday people, policymakers, scientific research, and healthcare systems globally. Brinker is the undisputed leader of the breast cancer movement and founder of the world’s largest breast cancer organization, Susan G. Komen. Named after her sister, it is the world’s largest source of non-profit funds allocated for breast cancer research and community programs for education, screening, and treatment.
Through her efforts, the organization has cultivated a network of over 100,000 volunteers in 124 affiliates worldwide working in communities to bring access to breast health services. “She’s the world’s champion networker. The best I’ve ever seen,” her husband, Norman Brinker, tells Roxanne Roberts of the Washington Post.
Many families have been touched by breast cancer and could only watch as it ravaged the bodies of loved ones. Most of us know someone who has had the disease. Some survive and move on, others undergo extreme treatment clinging to the hope of surviving, while others accept their fate and endure to the end. The disease often leaves families and survivors crushed in its wake – financially, emotionally, physically.
For Brinker and her sister, they made a pact to change the world. One would die, the other would charge on fighting to save lives, usher in quality care, and send medical science into finding a cure. She was determined that women with breast cancer did not suffer the fears and indignities her sister endured. No longer would the “C” word be hushed and set aside. Instead, through Brinker’s don’t-take-no-for-an-answer yet persuasive approach, breast cancerbecame front and center. The organization has raised over $2.2 billion for research, educational programs, screening and diagnosis, and patient treatment.
Brinker raised awareness using a novel idea known today as cause marketing. Her efforts resulted in a network of millions who carried the message to raise funds and awareness. An accomplished advocate, she applied her skill to advance women’s health resulting in new legislation and government funding for research. Many advances in researching breast cancer can be attributed to the funding from the organization.
“There is hardly an advance in the science of breast cancer over the past 20 years that hasn’t been touched by a Komen grant,” Brinker says in a BusinessWeek interview with Catherine Arnst. “That’s what I’m most proud of.”
In 2009, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor for civilians. She went on to become the Goodwill Ambassador for Cancer Control for the United Nation’s World Health Organization. She also made the list of TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. These are in addition to a long list of awards and recognitions she has received over the years.
Brinker sits on the boards of numerous organizations. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan appointed her to the National Cancer Advisory Board. She has also participated on President George W. Bush’s President’s Cancer Panel in 1992 and subsequently served as Ambassador to Hungary. During her tenure, breast cancer was the leading cause of death among women in Hungary. She formed the Bridge of Health Alliance in Hungary which supports breast cancer awareness and research. As a result of her efforts, breast cancer fell to the third leading cause of death by 2005.
Launching the Mission
In 1982, shortly after her sister’s death at age 36, Brinker and a group of friends met in her home in Dallas and founded the organization. Back then, women diagnosed with breast cancer were treated very differently than today.
She says in an interview with Kathy Caprino of Forbes, “On the medical front, there were fewer treatment options and resources available. On a cultural level, there was quite a lot of shame and stigma associated with the disease. You didn’t hear the words breast cancer on TV. No one talked openly about breast cancer, even though (former First Lady) Betty Ford had talked about it so openly just a few years earlier. It was a completely different landscape.” She adds, “The first step toward finding a cure was to break the silence that surrounded breast cancer and create a community built on understanding and empowerment.”
In 1983, Brinker created Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure®, the world’s largest education and fundraising event for the breast cancer movement. She is also responsible for the pink ribbon’s association with the fight against breast cancer.
Her Personal Story
Brinker was going full tilt and well on her way to achieving her goals, until the day she found a lump. Diagnosed with breast cancer, she chose to have a double mastectomy. Weeks of chemotherapy took its toll on her but she emerged a survivor. She recounts this ordeal in her book, The Race is Run One Step at a Time, released in 1990. Brinker authored her memoir, Promise Me – How a Sister’s Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer, which became a New York Times bestseller in 2010.
Today, Brinker is still focused on her mission to eradicate breast cancer. Her drive has produced many achievements toward that goal, impacting countless lives who have faced the disease or have cause to do something about it. In 2018 Brinker joined Julie Fisher Cummings and Laurie Silvers to launch The Promise Fund of Florida to address the critical issue of the lack of preventative diagnosis of breast cancer among women in South Florida. The Promise Fund of Florida has the goal of raising 5 million dollars by the end of 2021. This money will be used to expand a local network of community-based breast and cervical health “Navigators” among under served communities to facilitate both diagnosis and treatment at qualified, local health facilities.
At Throomers, it’s hats off to this fearless, selfless woman who has done so much, all for the love of a sister.