The L.A. Woman issue of Los Angeles magazine celebrates dozens of local leaders. Since October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month, we checked in with one originally from Illinois, too: Nancy G. Brinker, the founder and CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. The author and former U.S. ambassador told us about her job at the nonprofit, what women need to know to stay healthy now, and how far researchers are from finding a cure. Good news: We’re closer than you might think.
Tell us about your foundation.
Susan G. Komen was my sister, and she died of breast cancer when she was 36 in 1980. Before she died, she asked me to do whatever I could to ensure that breast cancer would not end people’s lives. She was a lovely, fabulous sister, and so I told her right then that I would do everything I could. I gathered a small group of friends in my living room in Dallas and started raising money for the Susan G. Komen foundation. We had $200 and a shoebox full of names. I was very lucky to have a very supportive husband in that he didn’t require me to go back to work, and I’ve done nothing else, save for two stints away [one as the United States ambassador to Hungary and the other as the chief of protocol of the United States] for 32 years.
You deal with cancer every day. How do you stay positive?
I made a promise. And when you make a promise to someone you love, you have to do it.
Do you have moments of weakness?
Oh, yeah. I had breast cancer two years after Susan died, and I thought I was going to die, too. I mourn like you can’t believe. Some days I get calls that someone died, and I just cry. It isn’t like you can be shielded from this. It’s like fighting a war and you’re in a foxhole and your friend gets hit. But if we don’t keep it up, a cure won’t happen.
So what’s an average day like for the CEO of the Susan G. Komen foundation?
I see myself as a combination servant, conductor, and coach—one who makes mistakes all the time. Every day I work on one of our four pillars [research, community health, advocacy, and global health]. But no two days are alike.
Today I woke up at 3 a.m.—I usually wake up in the middle of the night, though I have no idea why—and started making notes for the day: short-term, midterm, and long-term goals. I also have an entire list of things I need to check on because I am the only survivor, other than my son, of my wonderful 90-year-old mother who lives in Florida, and I check in every day. Then I check in with my son and try to exercise. I go back to sleep and get up again around six. But the first thing I do after praying to God I make it through another day so I can live long enough to see this through, is I get up and I say to myself, We are going to eradicate death from breast cancer.
How much money has Susan G. Komen for the Cure raised so far?
We have funded over $700 million worth of research, and we have raised and given $2 billion total. We are the only organization that funds the kind of programs we do in community health. We have 127 affiliates throughout America. Last year, through the work of these affiliates and with national fund-raising, we funded over 600,000 mammograms. We funded over 180,000 diagnostic and medical procedures. We funded over 1,900 breast cancer organizations throughout the country. We don’t do direct service ourselves, but we make sure we fund those who do.
But it isn’t enough to fund research. You have to be involved in the translation of it, the securing of services in prevention and screening and early detection for low-resource women, so our mission is broad and deep but focused.
What do you think is the biggest mistake women can make with their health?
Just assuming you won’t develop breast cancer because it isn’t “in your family.” It often is in your family. And I don’t mean you should be panicked, but there are patterns. It’s the second-leading killer of women in this country, and when a disease kills 50,000 women every year, it’s a serious problem. It’s not something to turn away from or think it’s not going to happen to you.
Fifty percent of women with health insurance are not being screened. That’s also a problem. We want people to be vigilant. Be educated before you have to be.
What’s the single most important thing women can do to stay healthy and happy?
Get outside of yourself every day. Help someone. Do something. The most unhappy people I know do nothing but sit around and think about how unhappy they are. I read everything our critics say about us early in the morning, because once I’ve read it, I want to focus the rest of the day with positive energy.
What kind of criticism do you face?
We get criticized for using the color pink. Our response is, as long as every 69 seconds someone in the world is dying of breast cancer, there’s not enough pink. What it means to us is power. If the AIDS community had not used the color red, I imagine there would be no antiviral drugs. If people had gotten sick of the March of Dimes during the polio era, there would have been no vaccine.
Speaking of vaccines, where does the research stand now? Do you think we’ll find a cure, and when?
Before the end of this decade we will have strategies to deal with the two deadliest types of breast cancer, and I believe we’ll have treatments and strategies in place for practically all breast cancer to keep people alive longer. I believe that ten years from now we will understand several preventative measures to keep this disease from taking hold.
That must make this an exciting and hopeful time in the field.
This is the renaissance of cancer research, period. This is what we’ve been waiting for all these years. It hasn’t come soon enough for many, many people. And that’s tragic.
What’s demoralizing is the shortage of cancer drugs. We now have strategies that work—we can practically cure breast cancer in a 62-year-old woman with estrogen-positive disease, and when we can’t get the drugs and the strategies needed to keep her disease free, that’s a real tragedy. We’re not sure what health care reform means at this point. We do know that services and programs are going to be cut, and we’re working very hard to keep programs intact for low-resource women. We just need help doing this.
Photograph courtesy www5.komen.org