Based on her research, she did know that during the time about 58,000 young Americans were dying in the Vietnam War, 339,000 died of breast cancer “and nobody was outraged. You didn’t hear about it. You just didn’t say the word ‘breast’ in conversation,” Brinker, 60, says. From her experiences in Neiman Marcus’ executive training program and the mentorship of her father, she also knew the basics of marketing.
“I realized that the messages (about breast cancer) were dry, boring, dull, scary,” she says. “It came out in literature from a few organizations, and nobody was reading them. How are you going to learn if you can’t say the words? Where could they receive that message in a way that would be unexpected? What I was thinking was pairing products with a message to reach women.”
In addition to raising money from wealthy groups of people and attempting to gain access to political leaders, Brinker realized she needed to build a large grass-roots organization “where we could attract people, where we could educate them, where we could give them hope.” This led to the idea of the Race for the Cure—and her notion of pairing products with a message led to “women in pink T-shirts.”
“This was all pre-Internet,” she says. “The only thing you could do was form organizations in towns and hope that it would grow, using the available media.” While at Neiman Marcus, “some of the very basic principles I learned were: Never stop selling. ‘No’ only means maybe. Keep working at something, and refresh it all the time.”
“Nancy literally ignited the global movement against breast cancer,” says Susan Carter, senior adviser in the office of the president of Komen. “I remember covering her first event for a local newspaper and having to sit down with my editor to figure out how to write the story without using the word ‘breast.’ We said ‘female’ cancer. I credit Nancy Brinker for changing the way we talk about breast cancer and the way we treat the disease. Another important hope was instilling hope into the cancer community.”
Ken Bentsen, board chairman of Komen, expresses admiration “that one person could be such a catalyst to create the largest nongovernmental breast cancer research organization, and put the issue on the public agenda, in such a short period of time.”
Launched in Dallas, Komen grew through a network of local affiliates with their own missions, boards and local races, that today receive in the aggregate about 75% of the foundation’s resources, Brinker says. At the national level, the Komen Foundation has invested in research and lobbied the government and others to do the same. It took about 10 years to build “a solid base” of funding support, she says.
Carter notes that the Komen Race for the Cure has grown from 800 participants in 1983 to more than 1.5 million today. “She created the first organized sporting event where people from all walks of life could gather in an unthreatening environment to discuss something very serious,” Carter says. “She encouraged participants to bring breast cancer out of the closet, acknowledge they’ve been personally touched by it, remember those they’ve lost, but more important, celebrate those who have survived.”
In the years since Komen’s founding, the five-year survival rate for those diagnosed with breast cancer has risen from 74% to 98%, and government funding for research has rocketed from about $30 million to $900 million, Brinker says. The $1 billion invested by Komen so far “is kind of amazing,” she says. “We’ve had tons of big sponsors, but also pennies, nickels and dimes.
“There hasn’t been an advance in breast cancer research that hasn’t been touched by a Komen grant,” she adds. “I am proud of the advances we have been able to make. A great part of the increase in screening is because of Komen’s leadership. The pink ribbon—it started with that, in the 1980s. It has a big message in it.”
Brinker takes the most pride in her people. “I’ve always loved having people around me who are far more intelligent than I am. It’s really nice to be surrounded by A students,” she says. “All of what we do is give a lot of love. We are a very forceful, powerful organization at this point.”