Nancy Brinker is a daughter, a mother, a widow. But perhaps her biggest role is that of sister to the most famous name in the fight against breast cancer. When Brinker's sister, Susan G. Komen, was nearing the end of her battle against the disease, she asked her sister "Nanny" to promise her that she would make pursuit of a cure her life's work. Brinker committed to that promise, and 30 years later, Susan G. Komen for the Cure has raised more than $1.5 billion for breast cancer research and awareness.
With her memoir, Promise Me (Random House; $25.99), now on bookstore shelves, Brinker took a moment from her book tour schedule to speak with Spry about the book, her sister Suzy, her own battle with breast cancer, and the future as she sees–and hopes–it to be.
Spry: How did Promise Me come about?
Nancy Brinker: Random House asked me if I'd do a memoir. I had done several books in the past, but they were all very focused on breast cancer, but I really wanted to memorialize who my sister was. I wanted to show the kind of person she was, the kind of life we had, the kind of place we grew up, and how the fight against polio shaped so much of our early thinking. [In the 1950s, at the height of the polio epidemic, Nancy and Susan's mother brought them along every weekend as she volunteered her time delivering food and medical supplies to those suffering from the disease.] We never realized at 33 she'd be battling a disease for which there was no cure and very little was known. A few weeks before she died, she looked at me and asked me if I'd help her end breast cancer forever, and I promised her that I would.
Spry: What was the hardest part about writing the book?
NB: I think it's always very bittersweet when you write a book like this. You live through and go through all of the memories and everything that's bad all over again, and it's difficult to do that. It really is.
Spry: On http://Komen.org, you say in the "About Us" section that "What happened from this point on is still difficult for me to talk about because I am so much more knowledgeable on the subject (of breast cancer) today. If I had only known then what I know now." Does that feeling still haunt you? The what ifs?
NB: Oh sure. The helplessness is pervasive when someone you love has breast cancer. I got breast cancer three years after Suzy died, and the helplessness is beyond anything I can describe.
Our mother made us doers. We were to get up off our haunches and make things happen. As little girls, we raised money for the Polio Association with our little talent show. We were doers, and so here I was a cancer volunteer in Texas and I felt totally helpless except to get Suzy into the cancer center, and it was too late in the end. They couldn't have done anything for her anyway–those were different times–and the helplessness of not having the kind of information we needed, the empowerment, her inability to talk, and the feeling helpless…it was really bad.
Spry: How did your own breast cancer diagnosis fuel your dedication to the promise you made Suzy?
NB: I was very lucky that I was able to use and access the physicians that she had used and accessed, and my treatment was very aggressive, and somehow I lived. And so I took that as a serious sign that I really did need to spend the rest of my life doing this. And I just hope I live long enough to see the result of what we've done.
Spry: Realistically, how close do you think we are to finding a cure?
NB: I think we're pretty close. I won't say a "cure," but a control of the disease. By the end of the decade, we'll have many more approaches to use that will help us keep people with more aggressive disease alive. I also think though, that we won't have a real cure for many years because it will involve some kind of prevention and gene engineering, but it's coming.
Spry: What is a typical day like for you running the foundation?
NB: (laughter) Get up, run, run, run, run, forage for some chocolate, run, run, run, keep running. Do some interviews–as much media as I can, especially in promoting this book. I meet often with our senior officers. We have strategic plans. I have to work with the board on many issues. I have to have high-level meetings with government officials. I particularly love the marketing and fundraising, so I'm working very heavily in those areas, and it's pretty much a 20-hour day, but I love it.
What keeps me going is seeing all the people whose lives have been saved. At the same time, I also take very seriously the lives of people who haven't been saved.
Spry: In knowing how many lives you've changed and saved and touched through your hard work, if you could trade that to have Suzy back, would you?
NB: In four seconds. But even if that happened, I'm sure she would have developed the disease and we would be working on it together.
Spry: Has there been one personal experience with a cancer patient, survivor, or family member that has touched you more than any other?
NB: Yes. It was a woman I met in Orange County last year, Leslie Whitman. I came out of the White House, and I went to do a tour of the affiliates that had joined the organization. I was at the event in Orange County, and Leslie came up and thanked me for saving our lives, and I thought she was talking about the mammogram. She said no, I'm a stage 4, 18-year survivor. And I thought maybe she didn't know what she was saying, but no. She was. And someone confirmed it to me. I asked her to walk me through her therapy, and every single treatment she had been given had been funded somewhere in its early history by Susan G. Komen. Those are the kind of moments that make someone like me get up in the morning and throw my legs over the bed and keep going.
This has been a long journey– this is 30 years, you know. And there have been times when I have been less than excited and feeling very stunted like my God, we just keep going around in circles. One thing happens and something else happens, and you just go when is this ever going to end? But we power through, and I'm thrilled that I'm still alive, and I pray I stay alive to see the end of this.
Promise Me is available from Random House at bookstores everywhere. Learn more about Brinker and her new book at http://nancygbrinker.com.