Nancy G. Brinker: Promise Keeper

The crusader's Race for the Cure has been key to funding advances in breast cancer research

In 1981, Nancy G. Brinker made a promise to her sister, who was dying of breast cancer at age 36. The public relations consultant vowed that she would work to spare other women from suffering in the same way. It was a dramatic gesture, and it led to a dramatic result: A year later, Nancy formed the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, named after her sister. Having no fortune of her own, she needed a way to both raise money and draw attention to the cause. The novel solution, which she arrived at while jogging, was to start a series of five-kilometer charity runs named the Race for the Cure.

Such events are now ubiquitous (BW -- Sept. 19), but the 1983 Race for the Cure was one of the first. And it has become one of the largest. Last year 1.5 million people in the U.S. and abroad participated in the Race for the Cure, raising $97 million in the process. Since its inception the Komen Foundation has collected more than $630 million for breast cancer research, education, screening, and treatment, and is considered a prime mover behind the progress in treatment since the 1980s.

At the time that Brinker founded the Komen Foundation, breast cancer was rarely discussed in public and was a low priority in oncology research, despite the fact that it strikes one in seven women. Brinker, 58, says: "I told my sister I would change this if it took me the rest of my life." She initially approached various charitable groups, but none was interested in focusing on breast cancer. So in 1982, Brinker gathered 20 women in her living room and asked for their help. "The oil business was booming in Texas back then," she says, and the group was able to raise $1 million in a year. But it was the Race for the Cure that made Komen a mega-foundation. The events also jump-started local chapters, which keep 25% of the money they collect for community education and screening.

Most important, the foundation has doled out more than $180 million in research grants. "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. That's what I'm most proud of," says Brinker, who survived her own bout with breast cancer in 1985. Scientists in the field acknowledge that Brinker's fund-raising, and the attention the Komen foundation has drawn to the disease, have played a large part in improving the prognosis for patients. Breast cancer death rates have dropped 2.3% a year over the past decade, a greater improvement than any other of the five leading cancer killers. When the tumor is caught early, women have almost a 100% chance of survival. "The advances we've made and continue to make are directly related to the involvement of the breast cancer advocacy community," says Dr. Larry Norton, chief of the breast cancer program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. "Nancy is clearly a very early and important part of that effort."

In honor of her work, and for setting a template for other advocacy efforts, Brinker was awarded the prestigious Mary Woodard Lasker Award for Public Service in September. Brinker, said the Lasker Foundation, "dramatically increased public awareness about this devastating disease." Still, Brinker says her promise to her sister is far from fulfilled. "We remain focused on one thing -- a world without breast cancer," she says. "We will continue to address causation, as well as the disparities in treatment in medically underserved populations."

So Brinker continues to Race for the Cure. In September she did those five kilometers in Budapest.

By Catherine Arnst

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