Susan G. Komen CEO Nancy Brinker

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Susan G. Komen for the Cure founder-CEO shares her thoughts on the controversy over mammograms and how often women should be screened.

As CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Nancy Brinker has turned the organization that she founded in memory of her sister into the leading catalyst in the U.S. in the fight against breast cancer. She's a pioneer of cause-related marketing, who's made the pink ribbon a symbol of hope. Brinker was ambassador to Hungary and U.S. Chief of Protocol and is the U.N. World Health Organization's Goodwill Ambassador for Cancer Control. A breast cancer survivor herself, she's co-authored several books and is the recipient of numerous awards for her work.


Tavis: As we kick off Breast Cancer Awareness Month 2010, I am pleased and honored to welcome Nancy Brinker to this program. She is the founder of Susan G. Koman for the Cure and former ambassador to Hungary, who last year was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
She is out now with a critically acclaimed new memoir. It’s called Promise Me: How a Sister’s Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer. Ambassador Brinker, first of all, thank you, thank you, and I’m glad to have you on the program.
Nancy Brinker: Thank you, Tavis. Really nice to be here with you.
Tavis: I’m glad to have you. I say thank you on behalf of people all over the world who are so pleased with the work the Susan G. Koman for the Cure is doing. We all know the pink ribbons. You got NFL players now wearing pink shoes (laughter) to support –
Brinker: – (laughter) you think they like that?
Tavis: It didn’t slow their game down. How have you been able to take this message – obviously, there’s a lot more to be done. We haven’t got a cure for this yet. So much more to be done, but you all have done a wonderful job – and I hate this word sometimes, even though I use it – branding the message and the pink ribbons. It’s such a wonderful journey.
Brinker: Well, you know, Tavis, I grew up – I’m a little more senior than you are – I grew up in a generation where polio was the greatest threat to our world, in America at the time. I watched a country get saturated by the March of Dimes, by physicians, the whole scientific, and watched our country mobilize against the disease. Then as I grew up and understood how to do marketing – I had a great husband and a very talented father and I had a lot of good mentors.
People were so afraid to talk about breast cancer when Susie was diagnosed and then when she died and asked me to do this that I realized the only way to deliver really conventional messages about breast cancer was through products and things people were doing that they weren’t afraid of and enjoying what they were doing. That really gave birth to cause-related marketing in this country, a lot of it.
Also, the Race for the Cure and the other events that we have because our job is to celebrate hope and to give people a vision for the future, not to depress them all the time and say, you know, you’re gonna die from this. We’ve made so much progress in the last 30 years. So that’s pretty much what I wanted to do when I was asked to write the book.
Tavis: Take me back 30 years and I’ll ask Jose to put the picture back up again. But I love this picture of you and your sister, Susie. But it has been 30 years since you made Susie this promise that you would spend the rest of your life doing this. Tell me about Susie.
Brinker: She was so fabulous. She was three years older than I. She was a beautiful, funny, wonderful, generous human being, always doing for other people, always getting me in a slight bit of trouble because she was a little shy and she also knew that I would be the enforcer in the family. So I always had to chase away the boyfriends. We had a curfew and Daddy would be really mad when she came in late. It was my job to convince him that his watch was broken (laughter).
So every single thing, I was the enforcer, executer of almost everything in the family. And we had this amazing bond that sometimes sisters are lucky enough to have. You know, we were best friends.
Tavis: I’m laughing because I’m thinking you were in ambassador training as a three-year-old (laughter).
Brinker: (Laughter) Believe me.
Tavis: If your job is to convince people of things they don’t want to be convinced about, hint: the definition of an ambassador sometimes, so that’s funny. When you made the promise 30 years ago, you started out honoring that promise in what way?
Brinker: Well, I didn’t know what I was gonna do. When you look at someone who’s dying who you love with all your heart and they ask you to end a disease – maybe I was about 30 at the time, 30 or 32, and I had no idea what I was gonna do, no idea.
I started thinking and I really had to use all my marketing background to think how can I – this is a cultural change we need in this country. After all, there were no cell phones, no patient support groups, no patient advocacy and you didn’t talk about breast cancer out loud. You called it the Big C. So how are you gonna end a disease when people wouldn’t even talk about it?
Tavis: Why were folk afraid to talk about it 30 years ago?
Brinker: Because it wasn’t considered attractive or it wasn’t considered the thing to do, to talk about cancer out loud. People were afraid they’d die and, in many cases, they did. You know, the five-year survival rate for very early breast cancer in those days was 74 percent. Today, if everything’s done right, it’s almost 98 percent. But Susie had very advanced breast cancer which does happen to a lot of people. So I dedicated my life to answering this promise to her.
We went on this journey and it was sad all up and down. She was a person very generous. Didn’t think the color of your skin or the amount of money you had should make any difference in the way you were treated, that treatment and research needed to be extended to everyone in the world, just like the polio vaccine was.
Tavis: And yet we know 30 years later, that’s still not the case, unfortunately.
Brinker: That’s right, which you knew from Sheryl. We have a very virulent form of breast cancer called triple-negative disease which is what Sheryl had and other young women and many people from certain cultures and backgrounds had it a lot. Then we have inflammatory breast cancer which is another – but Susan G. Koman for the Cure has privately funded more research than anyone other than the U.S. government.
And I am very proud now of the advances we’re making, but they’re slow and they’re too slow for people like Sheryl. I mean, we are seeing people live now many years with advanced disease, but not uniform.
Tavis: The Sheryl that the ambassador is speaking of happens to be Sheryl Flowers who was the executive producer – the only executive producer I’ve ever had on my radio program. I’ve been on public radio for years before I even came on public television and I’m still, of course, on public radio now.
But Sheryl was a young Black woman who died at the young age of 42 after battling a few years with a cancer called triple-negative breast cancer. So everything I do with regard to radio, we always dedicate it to Sheryl because she fought so valiantly with that disease.
What’s happened aside from the fact – this may be the answer. I don’t know. Is there an answer aside from the fact that cancer seems to strike some of everybody? Is there a reason beyond that for why you think the message resonates more now than it did 30 years ago?
Brinker: Because I think that, you know, so many people died from diseases they didn’t know about, but also it has increased and I think people are seriously, like us, like our organization, looking at causes and looking at ways to prevent it. There’s one thing we know. We can’t afford – and no one in the world can afford – to treat all the late-stage cancer. The world is aging and then there are other factors. There are hereditary factors. Who knows?
It could be things we’re eating, ingesting, that’s causing this in so many women, partly because there’s more awareness so people are picking it up early and partly because it’s really happening. I think that we have a chance of a lifetime in the next five or six years to pull out of all that science and jump over some of the hurdles in the regulatory agencies to have some new approaches to keep these people alive.
Tavis: To your point now, since you and I last talked, this controversy erupted yet again about mammograms –
Brinker: – right.
Tavis: And whether or not they’re necessary, whether or not you should do them at a certain age, whether or not you should do them with a certain frequency. I don’t know what the answer is anymore on mammograms.
Brinker: Here is our answer. This is a 50-year-old technology. We have been, Tavis, saying this for a long time. It isn’t that we need less screening. It’s that we need better screening and more of it. We need screening that’s faster, more accessible, more predictive and portable and easy to use. You know, we have that technology today. That technology exists and those processes exist to make that happen. It’s political will.
That’s also where we have the patient’s back and that’s why we advocate so hard by state, by cities, and even globally because we know this technology exists. It needs to be developed. It needs to be uniformly used in, particularly with people probably like Sheryl had, dense breast tissue that you can’t see through with mammography. Digital mammography is a lot better today, but still we need better techniques.
Tavis: You have worked for and were appointed ambassador by President Bush, first President Bush. President Obama, though – Republicans and Democrats like you.
Brinker: Right. I hope so. I like them (laughter).
Tavis: President Obama, as we see on the screen there, giving you the highest civilian honor in the country, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I raise that only because I want to make the point that, you know, your work is nonpartisan, obviously.
Brinker: Right, absolutely.
Tavis: Yet this healthcare reform is, obviously, a very big issue.
Brinker: Right.
Tavis: It’s in part what’s driving whatever is going to happen in these November elections. I only raise that to ask how this reform, as it’s now structured, will impact women having access to –
Brinker: – that’s a very good question, Tavis. We have already gone to the mat making sure that we have legislation which works on the edges of healthcare reform, to make sure that those things don’t happen and yet this is where people have to be very vigilant.
This is a broad-based reform package. It’s not specific in many ways, so it’s open for interpretation for a lot of people. There are state regulations. There’s going to be a lot of confusion in working all this out and we of Susan G. Koman are really leading the way in having the backs of breast cancer patients.
We want to make sure that not only is it accessible, but that it’s affordable and timely. The timeliness is really important. If you’re a low-resource woman and you get a mammogram and you have a biopsy in there and days or months go by before you have treatment, what good is that? If people are treated in a timely fashion where they have access to care, we can conquer early breast cancer. Just let it get out of the box, though, and then it’s really a problem.
Tavis: I want to go back to where we began this conversation. Everybody knows Susan G. Koman for the Cure. We all know the name; we all know the pink ribbons. It’s been branded wonderfully well. Tell me what Susan G. Koman does with the financial support that people give to the organization. They do what exactly?
Brinker: Well, we have affiliates in 120 cities throughout America and their single task is to make sure they do needs assessment in their community. They fund treatment, screening and education programs in their communities basically focused at low-resource people. With the 25 percent that returns to the national foundation, that’s where we fund the cutting edge research.
So if you look at our resources as a pie, basically a little less than half of our money goes to cutting edge research, prevention, causation, etc. The rest of it goes for community outreaching care across all cultures. No other breast cancer organization has this broad of mission because we don’t believe you can cure a disease in the laboratory alone. It has to be translated into every population because breast cancer is a different disease in many populations.
Tavis: Let me close by asking an impossible question because I know, as I said earlier, we have not cured this, obviously, so the work of Susan G. Koman continues. But what do you think Susie would say now 30 years later?
Brinker: I think she’d be really proud because this organization looks like her. It’s outreaching, it’s real, it’s mission-oriented. We have an army of people who make their own promise every day. But I think she would look at me and say, “Nan, we got to find out how to prevent this disease. We’ve got to find out what’s causing and we’ve got to take care of the women of today and make sure they get the treatment they need.”
Tavis: So she’d still be pushing you.
Brinker: She’d still be pushing me. Still be the enforcer, I’d have to be (laughter).
Tavis: It’s a memoir of a life well-lived. It’s by Nancy G. Brinker, Ambassador Brinker. The book is called Promise Me: How a Sister’s Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer.
I want to close on this note. I don’t often editorialize around here, but whenever anybody tells you that one person cannot make a difference, think of all the pink ribbons that you see everywhere and all that you hear about breast cancer because one woman made a promise to her one sister that she would spend the rest of her life dedicating her work to saving the lives of other women. So it’s a wonderful legacy and I celebrate you.
Brinker: Thank you, Tavis. Thank you so much.
Tavis: Thank you for coming on.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm