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Susan G. Komen Founder Discusses Her Book : NPR

October 7, 2011

September 14, 2011

Before her sister died of breast cancer, Nancy Brinker promised to stop the suffering of those living with and dying from the disease. Her sister was Susan G. Komen — a name now known throughout the world. Michele Norris talks to Brinker about founding Susan G. Komen for the Cure and her book Promise Me: How a Sister’s Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer, now out in paperback.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: By now, most Americans are quite used to the pink ribbons that raise awareness about breast cancer and there’s probably a Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure that takes place each year somewhere near your home.

All that started with a bedside request from Susan G. Komen herself. She asked her only sister, Nancy Brinker, to raise awareness about the disease that would soon take her life.

Brinker has spent her life doing just that. She stopped by our studios today to talk about the rewards and the challenges of that mission. She writes about it in her book, “Promise Me.” Nancy Brinker says when she started her advocacy work, people were afraid to even mention the big C.

NANCY BRINKER: When we did our very first event, there were women who felt reluctant to put their name on the invitation because it had the words, breast cancer. Frankly, some of their husbands were uncomfortable with them putting their names on it because you didn’t use the word breast out loud. You couldn’t really say it on TV. You didn’t ever see it in print like that and it wasn’t printable in the newspapers.

So that alone made us realize we not only had to change what was happening in the clinic, we had to change the culture in the United States.

NORRIS: People see you and they think of you as a warrior, but you’re also a bit of a receptacle. In fact, that’s how we met. I approached you and talked to you about my mother’s experience.


NORRIS: My mother is a two-time cancer survivor.

Wherever you go, people talk to you about their own experience and because we’re talking about breast cancer, those stories are often laden with grief.


NORRIS: What is that like for you? Because I imagine that that must be really difficult.

BRINKER: It’s one of the most difficult things and I could cry if I could ever tell you the – sometimes, I close my eyes at night and I see something that looks like Arlington Cemetery, only you know, acres and acres and acres of graves of people who shouldn’t have died and things I couldn’t do to help. And I never like to talk about myself or my own issues.

NORRIS: I notice in your memoir, there are lots of stories about other people.

BRINKER: I don’t like to talk because I’ve always tried to be as outward thinking and acting and moving in my life as I can because I feel such a shortness of time. And I believe I’ve been able to live the time I have to fulfill my sister’s – the promise I made. Therefore, I don’t want to waste time feeling sorry for myself ever or I want to help and keep going and moving forward and sometimes it’s the best therapy for me.

NORRIS: I’m just curious about how you do it. How do you push through that and is that something that you really understood when you got involved in this?

BRINKER: Well, I was young and I thought I was smart. You know, I was 30 years old and I thought, oh boy, am I smart. We put a man on the moon in 10 years. This can’t be that hard.

Ha. That shows you how little I knew. And I knew that we were going to have to make this cultural shift and I knew it was – I said to myself, boy, you’ve really gotten into it now. This is really going to be a long term effort, but the more I got into it, the more I wanted to be in it because I kept seeing the need.

And I knew it was probably going to take close to 50 years to do what I wanted to do at some point and I said it can’t take that long. I may not be able to live that long. And I have got to see. I want to see measurable gains in my life. I want to see this happen. And so that…

NORRIS: Is your goal realistic?

BRINKER: Yes. I think every goal I have is realistic, but sometimes, it’s changed. It’s not changed. It’s amended a little bit, given the realities. I want to see women live reasonable lives with a good quality of life with this disease if it progresses and I want to see people die of old age. That’s what I want to see.

NORRIS: We began talking about one C word.


NORRIS: Cancer. And I want to ask you, just in closing, about another C word, the cure. It is a word that is often attached to breast cancer.


NORRIS: Do you feel as hopeful toward that or in your answer, do I hear you saying that what I’m hoping to achieve in my lifetime is that women will have meaningful lives and that they will live perhaps for a long time with this disease as opposed to realistically expecting to see a cure.

BRINKER: Yeah. Now that we understand the biology of cancer, we understand that using the word cure means you’d have to prevent it from ever developing or growing, which could be a very long time, but I am absolutely confident that we will reach a time when we feel that we have real control over this disease in my lifetime.

The word cure is, I believe, broadened today because many people have diseases they’re living with for years and years and years and years, then die of something else.

NORRIS: You know, before I let you go, I just have to ask you one quick question, one of the surprises as I’m reading this. Everyone by now is aware of the pink ribbons that you see all over the place. They’re on t-shirts. They’re on key fobs and jump drives. They’re all over the place. But they were almost peach.

BRINKER: Yeah. Right.


NORRIS: There was almost a peach ribbon and not a pink ribbon. Tell me the story there.

BRINKER: Well, here’s the real story. Pink was my sister’s favorite color. It was the ribbon on her homecoming queen dress at Richwoods High School in Peoria, Illinois. And that was the color that she related to, so I always kind of resented when people tinkered with the color of pink. It’s OK. It isn’t just because it’s a feminine color that, for whatever reason, but now it means pink power. Now it really means power, so that’s really the story. It started with one woman, one perception, and now it’s many, many, many perceptions all over the world.

NORRIS: I hope you like the color pink. In almost every photograph, you seem to be wearing…

BRINKER: I do wear it all the time.

NORRIS: …some bit of pink all the time.

BRINKER: It always reminds me of her. Always. So I always feel like I take part of her with me every day.

NORRIS: Ambassador Brinker, thank you so much for coming in.

BRINKER: Thank you so much.

NORRIS: The book is “Promise Me: How a Sister’s Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer.”

Susan G. Komen Founder Discusses Her Book : NPR.

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