October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and pink is the signature color. From lapel ribbons to t-shirts to football cleats, pink is everywhere, reminding all of us that one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their lives.
At the forefront of the fight to find a cure for breast cancer is a familiar name: Susan G. Komen. The foundation named in her memory sponsors 5K races every October aimed at raising awareness and money for breast cancer detection, diagnosis, treatment, and research.
But I’ll admit that I knew nothing of Susan G. Komen until now, nor of her sister, Nancy Goodman Brinker, who has dedicated much of her life to keeping her memory alive and fighting back against the disease that took her beloved sister away far too soon.
It takes moxie to take on a monster, and Susan Goodman Komen and Nancy Goodman Brinker have it. Here’s how:
Moxie doubles up.
The way Nancy describes it, her big sister Susan was the belle of Peoria, Illinois. She was the high school homecoming queen with a big smile and an even bigger heart.
“Suzy tried desperately to teach me about the pretty things in life: how to fix my hair, apply makeup, and coordinate my wardrobe. None of it seemed to work,” Nancy recalls. Susan might have been a beauty queen, but Nancy was a tomboy. Despite their differences, they were incredibly close.
“Suzy was the perfect older sister,” says Nancy.
After college, Susan returned home to settle down with her high school sweetheart and do some local modeling gigs. Nancy headed off across the country to pursue her own adventures. The two talked on the phone daily, leaning on each other across the miles in the way sisters do.
They leaned on each other through career progressions and changes, marriage, and children. There was no reason to believe it would ever be any different; their lives seemed to stretch before them in an endless rhythm of everyday joys and challenges.
Until one Tuesday afternoon, when Susan delivered troubling news.
Moxie stands by.
Susan had a lump in her breast, and it was cancer. In those days — the late 70s — no one talked about breast cancer, and treatment options seemed limited. You just trusted your doctor to make the right choices for you, and that was that.
Susan didn’t question the treatment and accepted the surgeon’s word for it when he declared she was “cured” after one surgery. Within a few months, the cancer was back with a vengeance and spreading fast.
Nancy flew in every other week to see her sister. When she wasn’t camped out in a waiting room for endless hours, she was on the phone with Susan. She listened, she advised, she advocated. Even though her own breast cancer scares, she stayed close.
It was a good thing she was close, too. At that time, resources for breast cancer patients were scarce.
“There were no 800 numbers, no patient advocacy. Who was going to question what the physician did? It was a very, very different world,” Brinker told the Houston Chronicle in a 2010 interview.
Susan had a strong support system to lean on, but she was all too aware of the many who did not. It broke her heart, and she longed to reach out and help, even in the midst of her own struggle.
Moxie keeps a promise.
Susan fought back bravely for three years before succumbing in 1980 at the age of 36. She left behind a husband, two small children, and a very heartbroken sister. Nancy promised her big sister that she would continue to fight on behalf of all the others battling this dreadful disease.
She made good on her promise, founding the Susan G. Komen Foundation in 1982, just two years after her sister’s death. The very next year, the first Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure was held in Dallas, Texas, and in 1991 the pink ribbon was established as the symbol for the cause.
The foundation has raised $988M in breast cancer research and $2.2 billion in education, screening, and treatment. While there’s still no cure for breast cancer, there has been a 40 percent decline in mortality since it was founded.
SUSAN G. KOMEN’S MISSION STATEMENT: Save lives by meeting the most critical needs in our communities and investing in breakthrough research to prevent and cure breast cancer.
SUSAN G. KOMEN’S WIKIPEDIA PAGE: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susan_G._Komen_for_the_Cure#History
NANCY GOODMAN BRINKER’S-(THE FOUNDER OF SUSAN G. KOMEN)-WIKIPEDIA PAGE: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nancy_Brinker