Ambassador Nancy G. Brinker is regarded as the leader of the global breast cancer movement. Her journey began with a simple promise to her dying sister, Susan G. Komen, that she would do everything possible to end the shame, pain, fear and hopelessness caused by this disease. In one generation, the organization that bears Susan’s name has changed the world.
Shortly after Susan’s death from breast cancer at the age of 36, Brinker founded Susan G. Komen for the Cure® in 1982, now the world’s largest grassroots network of breast cancer survivors and activists fighting to save lives, empower people, ensure quality care for all and energize science to find the cures.
Her creativity in raising awareness led to programs that at the time were revolutionary: in 1983, she founded the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure®, which is now the world’s largest and most successful education and fundraising event for breast cancer. She also pioneered cause-related marketing, allowing millions to participate in the fight against breast cancer through businesses that share Komen’s commitment to end the disease forever. Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s unwavering advocacy for breast cancer survivors led to new legislation and greater government research funding. To date, virtually every major advance in breast cancer research has been touched by hundreds of millions of dollars in Komen for the Cure funding.
In 2009, President Barack Obama honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for this work. The same year, she was named Goodwill Ambassador for Cancer Control for the United Nations’ World Health Organization, where she continues her mission to put cancer control at the top of the world health agenda.
Brinker was named one of TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” in 2008. She served as U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Hungary from 2001 to 2003, and most recently served as U.S. Chief of Protocol from 2007 to 2009, where she was responsible for overseeing all protocol matters for visiting heads of state and presidential travel abroad.
What does the Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization mean to you, and why was it important to honor your sister?
In 1977, Suzy developed breast cancer. She was 33 years old. At the time, there were no cell phones, no websites, no 1-800 numbers for patients to call. There was a lot of isolation and fear, particularly if you lived in a small town, which she did.
People didn’t talk about breast cancer out loud the way they do now. It was “the big C.” It wasn’t until 1974 when Betty Ford stood up and showed that she could live through the disease that people even began to utter the word in their vernacular.
At the time people feared that the treatment was worse than the disease. People died silently all the time from it. They didn’t discuss it, and there certainly wasn’t any patient advocacy. There was hardly any research done on women’s diseases at that time. Most research on women’s diseases was done on men. Nonetheless, when she was diagnosed with the disease, the first thing I thought about was that there is no awareness about this.
I did some casual research then and found out that during the Vietnam War, which was the greatest tragedy of our youth, 59,000 Americans had died. In the same time period 339,000 people had died of breast cancer, and no one was outraged. I thought, “What the H? What is happening here? How can people not know this?” There was no organization dedicated to this. The cancer organizations that existed were generally there to fund and treat all kinds of cancer.
Suzy and I talked many times about the conditions of the waiting rooms and how people felt, the lack of research, the lack of knowledge and empowerment — everything that happened along the way. She never got a break except for the fact that she had a very loving family and people that tried very hard to help her and give her access to the best cancer care at the time, which frankly there wasn’t enough of.
Right before she died, I told Suzy I would do something to cure this disease and change the way people progressed and died of it. I promised her that I would. Even if it took me the rest of my life. I was young and brash and not as smart as I thought I was. I said, you know what, we put the man on the moon, I’ll get this done.
What did you feel needed to happen to fight this breast cancer epidemic?
There needs to be more pervasive education. If people aren’t educated about what to do to prevent a disease or do everything they can, then we have a lot of very good science that hasn’t been translated into care.
We had an appalling lack of research that needed to be ramped up. Scientists needed to be funded. We also needed to be sure that whatever came out of that research would be applied throughout the community. That’s what is happening today. That is why survival rates have climbed so dramatically. When we started, the five-year survival rate for very early breast cancer was 74 percent. Today, the five-year survival rate is 98 percent in America.
What have been your greatest lessons?
There are no new ideas. You just borrow whatever you know and apply it to what you’re doing. My father used to say, it’s not that people fail because they have bad ideas. It is that they quit. Quitting was never an option in our family. We were not allowed to quit. We were made to be flexible in our ideas so that if something didn’t work when we set out on a project, we had to figure out a way to make it work. My father was one of the most focused people I have ever known in my life. He was in razor-sharp focus, and I guess I inherited that from him, along with a tenacity to get it done. To just not quit. And daddy used to say, “If you ever stop working, you’ll just die slowly.” He said, “If you are productive after your basic needs are met, and your family is taken care of, and you have a sense of spirituality or whatever, the most important thing in your life is to be productive.” I have never forgotten that, and that is how I wake up every day. I just go to work. All day. All night. I love being productive. I love doing what I can.
Watching Mr. Marcus, of Neiman Marcus, who gave me my first job, transform the selling experience was also an important lesson. It wasn’t just that he was selling luxury items; It was the way he did it. He created an environment and always made it about the customer. All of those lessons translate to the nonprofit world. From him I learned that the techniques we use to fundraise must be experiential.
Where did the idea for Race for a Cure come from?
One night after I started the organization in 1982, I had a dream in which I saw a lot of people — a lot of fierce, but attractive, healthy women running. They were running, and they were in pink. Pink was my sister’s favorite color. I said to myself, “What we have here is a race. This mission we are on is a race for the cure.” Now we are the largest grassroots breast cancer organization in the world. We’re in 50 other countries in addition to all these cities. We have millions of people who participate in For the Cure activities — Race for the Cure, Cook for the Cure, Walk for the Cure — all the things that we do. That’s just part of how we raise money. We also have many national fundraising events. Since our inception in 1982, when a group of volunteers met in my living room, we have granted more than $1.9 billion.
You talked about your family teaching you to be flexible and never quit. Was there an instance where you wanted to quit and didn’t?
Initially my volunteers didn’t want to do Race for the Cure. They thought it would disrupt fundraising. I realized that you have to do these things carefully. You have to try your hardest to be as flexible as you can in order to get people to be a part of something. Once they see that something is successful, they want it to work.
Most people are not visionaries, and I have been lucky. I have been able, as Jonathan Swift says, “to practice the art of the invisible.” That probably comes from not being a very linear thinker. I am much more of a visionary and a visual thinker, and I feel things. I knew there was a movement happening, and I knew it was time because of the amount of breast cancer developing around the world. I knew we had to conquer it and never quit. In those days, we had no opportunity for viral campaigns. We had no Internet, so the only way you could do it was to build a grassroots movement. And that is what we did.
Flexibility is something you must practice on a daily basis. However, it doesn’t mean you should lose your focus. Because the most important thing after vision and getting your team to have faith and join your cause, is to keep absolute focus. Because if you don’t, it is like a tightrope — you will fall off. You cannot lose your focus.
How do you achieve balance?
I don’t sometimes. I try really hard to take off at least one to one-and-a-half hours a day, but I don’t do it very well. You have to step away a little bit, even when you feel like you can’t afford to. Because sometimes you just have to do what you can and forgive yourself for not being able to do everything. Nobody can do everything perfectly. You have to learn to depend on people working with you and hope that they’re smarter and better.
And surely it helps to have a strategic map. If you know where you are going, you are willing to practice some flexibility in the way that you get there, and you work hard at it every day. You may not accomplish all of your goals, but you will get a long way toward them. I firmly believe that you create your own luck.
What are you focused on right now?
My top priority is finishing the restructure of Susan G. Komen that we started last year when I was asked by the board to come back as CEO. They were restructuring the organization, and we have almost completed it. We are now working on two areas and have made significant progress. I suspect in the next 60 to 90 days we will be done with the restructure of those particular areas.
I am also working on the development of our global work and establishing a set of benchmarks and outcomes that will continue to inspire everyone working on our cause in order to propel us forward.
What has been the most rewarding part of creating and building the organization?
The most rewarding thing for me is when someone comes up to me and thanks me for saving her life. It is very powerful. You realize that that’s what it is about. It is very rewarding to feel that our organization has been successful with all the wonderful things that have happened, but it is equally rewarding to know that somebody lived because of the work we do. It is a spiritual dividend that is far different than getting a paycheck.
What was the greatest challenge you faced in growing the organization, and how did you manage through it?
Not acting soon enough to restructure or to ask people to leave who are not working out. What happens is you create an environment in which every time there is a mistake made, it creates a backward movement. Now we very carefully assess people who are going to join us. This is not necessarily just a job. This is a lifestyle. We work people very hard, and it isn’t because we demand it but because people become very engaged. The kind of leaders that I’ve tried very hard to develop — and now we have them — will lead important areas of our work. This is like building an army, and everybody has to know what they are doing, where they are going and embrace the mission, beliefs and core values. If they don’t, you have to be big enough to make that change. You have to say that this is failing, and we can’t let the public down. We all believe — those of us that run the organization — that we have an obligation to the public. That is the biggest mistake of my career. I have often let people stay too long or let negative situations evolve further than they should have.
The other thing that I have learned over the years is to not sweat the small stuff. There’s a lot of small stuff. If you look at your big goals and try your best, you’re going to move forward.
What inspires you?
When I go to a Race for the Cure event, or when I visit hospitals, or when I see people living 10 to 15 years with metastatic breast cancer. When I see families staying together and children not losing their mothers, I say to myself, “We’ve got to get to the next step.”
The other thing that inspires me is my work as a Goodwill Ambassador at the World Health Organization. Because I know we must translate what we know about the detection and treatment of very early breast cancer to low-resource countries where 70 percent of the cancer is developing with only 5 percent of the resources. That is what inspires me — to try to use my voice, to meet with leaders.
What are three trends that excite you?
I love technology. I love the idea of being able to meet virtually. I love companies like Cisco because they have technology that makes it look like you are in a meeting room. The more virtual you can be while keeping your organization personal, the better. I think you should travel but only if you are going to see or do something that you cannot do virtually. That excites me.
It excites me that patients are becoming more educated, because I believe that patients always drive the efficiency and the success of health care.
The other thing that excites me is the opportunity I hope our organization is given — and that will only happen if wealthy individuals choose to invest in us — to give people normal lives without death from cancer. That truly excites me because I saw my sister die and leave two small children. I believe in the sanctity of mothers raising their children and of a family unit being able to stay together.
How can the IdeaMensch community help?
We also need the technology billionaires and some of the wonderful capitalists in America to give us large sums of money. I can promise you they will never have a better return on investment. Ever.