Prevention Special: The Story Behind the Ribbon

It's October and that means everyone is thinking pink. Prevention asked Ambassador Nancy G. Brinker, founder and CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, to share her deeply personal story of how one of the county's most powerful health advocacy programs began.

Suzy died August 4, 1980.

She was thirty-six years old. Her children were ten and six. Mommy was with her. I was on my way, but Daddy met me at the airport, his eyes rimmed in red, his mouth drawn down to a tight line of self-control.

"She's gone," he said. There was a shock wave of agony, relief, guilt, and sorrow. Then a strange state of white noise settled in my head. With a numb efficiency, Mommy and I ordered flowers and discussed appropriate readings with the rabbi. We agreed that Suzy personified Solomon's good woman in the Song of Songs.

I am a rose of Sharon, I am a lily of the valleys.

The casket was to be closed during Suzy's funeral, but there was a private viewing for the family before the service. The absolute stillness of her body seemed to anchor the room. All the months of twisting frustration and abject terror disappeared now, drawn into a peaceful center of gravity. But when Mom and I stepped closer, the breath caught in my chest. Heavy-handed makeup covered Suzy's softly expressive face, making her look plastic-almost puppetlike.

"No. No way." Quiet but firm, I strode to the back of the room where the funeral director stood. "Excuse me. That makeup. Take it off, please. I'll redo it myself."

The light-handed way Suzy had always applied her makeup was as much about her personality as it was her sense of style. There was a daytime look and a nighttime look. She'd taught me to do both and updated me periodically with new tricks and trendy products.

Suzy left us with the daytime look.

I wasn't ready to face the reality of a daily life without Suzy, but I had rent to pay, a child to raise. In September, Eric started kindergarten, and I went back to work.

"How long has it been?" people would ask, as if this foundation-shifting event was over, but it was still going on. My mother's unstoppable spirit was shattered on the floor. My father's bounding energy had aged to a weighted sigh. I felt frozen, encased in ice with all the missing hours, the thousands of days that Suzy should be here and wouldn't be. People let me know it was time to let go. But how do you let go of someone so thoroughly woven through your soul? How do you live without someone you would have died for?

I was haunted by Suzy's final request. Promise me, Nan. Promise you'll make it change. I'd promised, and I meant it, but what did she expect me to do? Paint the walls in the waiting room? Stand on the corner with a sandwich board? Find every woman who didn't know better and shake her till she listened? Did Suzy expect me to cure breast cancer?

"Knowing Suzy," Mom said wryly, "she expected all of the above with a pink ribbon on it. Plus a box of chocolates."

"So what am I supposed to do?" "Go back to what you know. Volunteer. Raise money. Make noise."

Before Suzy died, my calendar was booked full of cancer-related charity functions. If I dove back in, I could learn from these events, connect with oncologists, researchers, celebrities.

At the annual Cattle Baron's Ball, a rhinestone-studded event benefiting the American Cancer Society, Dr. Blumenschein, Suzy's oncologist, greeted me with a warm embrace.

"How are you, Nancy?"
"Fine." I went with the polite response; he knew the truth. "Dr. B, I need your advice."
"Fire away."
"I have to cure breast cancer."
"Me too." He smiled a pained smile.
"No, I mean it. This has to be done. How do we do this?"
"Well, you start here." He indicated the packed ballroom. "Funding research."
"There's tons of oil money in Texas right now," I said. "We need to push breast cancer to the top of the list and get some of it flowing our way."

"People tend to fund a general focus on cancer. Breast cancer specifically . . . that's difficult."
"Yes. People keep telling me it's unseemly to mention it. Uncomfortable. But how can the civilized world circa 1980 glorify Raquel Welch, eat up Charlie's Angels with a spoon, then turn around and tell me there's something unseemly about saying breast cancer?"

"You're preaching to the choir, Nancy." Blumenschein held up his hand like a crossing guard. "I'm just saying-be realistic about it."

I studied the abundant d├ęcolletage around the room. If we couldn't champion the cause here, where on earth could we? When Dallas society came out to play, they did it in a great big, star-spangled, bouffant-and-bow-ties way, bras and beehives piled high, egos and checkbooks fully loaded. Generosity was a competitive obsession, second only to Friday night football. Texas was teeming with fabulously philanthropic movers and shakers, powerful politicos, brilliant business moguls. . . .

"It's a marketing issue," I told Blumenschein. "To get the money ball rolling in a big way, we need awareness. We need outrage. As far as the fundraising piece-okay, we're here, and I appreciate everyone's generosity, but it's too little, too late."

"Too late for Suzy, yes," said Blumenschein. "And a lot of others. Believe me, I never forget a face. But what keeps me up at night are the ones walking in the door tomorrow."

"You're a great man, Dr. Blumenschein." I clinked my champagne flute on his. "L'chaim."
He nodded firmly and raised his glass. "To life."

From Promise Me
by Nancy G. Brinker, founder and CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure with Joni Rodgers



More Ways to Stay Cancer-Free from Prevention

Breast Cancer Live Chat October 7th


Habits That Lower Your Cancer Risk


6 Habits That Can Save Your Life


The Smartest Cancer Advice You've Ever Heard