It was in early 1978 when Nancy Brinker learned that her beloved older sister, Susan, had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Before the age of the Internet, cancer support groups, and 1-800 numbers, breast cancer was a disease shrouded in mystery, one that was claiming the lives of tens of thousands of American women but was never talked about. The term “breast cancer” itself was treated like a toxin—banned from newspapers and broadcast television.
Step by step, Brinker and her sister put together the pieces of her treatment—she was given the same eight drugs that all women who were diagnosed with breast cancer in the late 1970s were given—but the cancer would not relent. After three years, the disease had progressed and doctors were less than optimistic.
But Nancy and Susan refused to throw up a white flag. In part, the women took their cues from another strong, courageous woman who had gone through the same thing, but in the public eye. First lady Betty Ford had publicly revealed her diagnosis in 1974, dealing a significant blow to the stigma that surrounded the disease.
“When [Susan] was presented with this rather grim outlook for her particular disease, and the rather poor prognosis—I’ll never forget this—she said, ‘If Betty Ford can do this, I’m going to do this,’” Brinker said.
Just after Susan G. Komen lost her battle with breast cancer in 1980, Nancy started the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation in keeping a promise to her sister: that she would do everything she could to end the disease.
Over the last 30 years, the organization, renamed Susan G. Komen for the Cure, has grown into the largest, best-known breast cancer organization in the United States, with hundreds of millions of dollars at its disposal and Brinker at its helm.
One of the foundation’s most ardent and loyal supporters over the years was the same woman who originally inspired Nancy and Susan to fight with everything they had: Betty Ford, who passed away Friday.
Brinker was in attendance at Ford’s memorial service on Tuesday in Palm Desert, Calif., where the former first lady was remembered for her grace, humor, and candor. Ford broke all the old rules as she openly discussed her battles with alcoholism, addiction to pills, and breast cancer, and she brought those previously taboo issues into the light.
Also attending Ford’s memorial were first lady Michelle Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, former first ladies Rosalynn Carter and Nancy Reagan, and former President George W. Bush.
“She was the most brave, valiant woman, and it’s because she was totally authentic. She didn’t believe in hiding things,” Brinker said. “She taught us not to be ashamed.”
After Brinker started the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation at the age of 30 on the floor of her living room in Dallas, with lofty ambitions and little else, it was Betty Ford who showed up to one of the first fundraisers—a women’s polo tournament. She attended the organization’s biggest fundraiser every year after that, lending her formidable star power to the cause.
And it was Betty Ford who made one of the first phone calls Brinker received when she herself was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1985.
“She said, ‘Listen, I know how difficult this is and how scary this is; take it hour by hour,’” Brinker remembered. “‘And it’s OK to show your emotions, it’s OK to cry, it’s OK to have a really bad moment, but then gather yourself and pray and say I have the courage to do this.’”
Ford was instrumental in changing the culture, Brinker said, and for that generations of advocates owe her a debt of gratitude. Ford will be laid to rest on Thursday next to her husband at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich.
This article appears in the July 14, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.