Her Sister's Keeper

by Judith Warner
Photograph: Photo: Dean Kaufman

In the early summer of 1980, Susan Komen, 36 years old and greatly weakened by treatments for late-stage breast cancer, turned to her little sister and said, “Nanny, we can’t let this happen to other people. Promise me when I get better that you will help me end this disease.”

Suzy died soon afterward, leaving behind a husband and two young children. To this day, her bereaved sister, Nancy Brinker, 63, can close her eyes and hear Suzy’s words in her ears as if they’d just been spoken. “My sister had only two and a half years after she was diagnosed,” Brinker says now, opening her eyes and slowly returning to the present day in her busy Palm Beach, Florida, home, where a variety of staffers bustle in the background and a pool sits like an afterthought in the backyard. “And I often think, My God, if she’d only had another 10 years, what a difference that would have made in the lives of her children and in her own life.”

It’s a haunting thought, one that has propelled Brinker for three decades to fight the ignorance, insufficient research and lack of good treatment options that led to her sister’s untimely death. Under Brinker’s leadership, the organization she founded two years after Suzy died—now called Susan G. Komen for the Cure—has grown from a shoestring operation to a global concern with 122 U.S. affiliates and three chapters abroad. Its signature Race for the Cure events, which have made pink ribbons synonymous with breast-cancer fund raising and advocacy, draw 1.5 million people each year.

Komen has raised nearly $1.5 billion for breast-cancer research and prevention since its inception in 1982, making it the second-largest funder of breast—cancer research in the U.S., after the -federal government. In 2009, Komen channeled more than $93 million in grants to local organizations to fund breast health awareness, screening and, in some cases, treatment for underserved, uninsured or underinsured women. It is often described as the largest source of nonprofit funds in the world.

Today, Brinker divides her time among directing Komen’s operations at its new office in Washington, D.C.; making trips back to the home office in Dallas; and, whenever possible, spending time in Florida, where her 89-year-old mother lives and which she considers home. This demanding schedule requires seemingly unflagging energy and determination, but Brinker has both. She rises to the challenge every day, smile ready, handshake strong, wardrobe a study in casual elegance. She is smart and sincere, tall and imposing, strongly opinionated, frank and straightforward. These are wonderful qualities in an advocate and a leader, a woman whom fans call a visionary, but they are not so well suited perhaps to the banalities of everyday life on a sunny island where the main centers of gravity are the golf clubs. “I look at my friends, and they have good lives, but they don’t know what they’re missing: the daily meaning,” she says. “And so they play golf and they go to parties and they’re ‘active.’ I get to save lives. People say to me, ‘Gosh, why do you keep working so hard?’ But to me it’s not work. It’s a passion and a promise to my sister.”

That Brinker’s life has purpose is documented by all the framed photographs on the piano and side tables in her living room: Brinker shaking hands with Ronald Reagan; posing with George W. and Laura Bush; meeting the pope; smiling alongside Barack and Michelle Obama after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom. That her life has at times been hard is also visible in her home. Above the mantel, dominating the living room, is a startlingly dark, strikingly provocative painting that mixes oddly with the cheery photos. The painting shows a male figure, all in white, head bowed under a white hat, ascending a white staircase against a backdrop of sheer black. It is not clear whether it is a portrait of emerging hope or of despair.

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