Susan G. Komen CEO: Too Much Pink Is Never Enough

By Meghan Casserly

Nancy Brinker has worn many hats: as U.S. Ambassador to Hungary she kept diplomatic relations in check. As Chief of U.S. Protocol under the Bush Administration she attended to the protocol of international diplomacy for the country. But for the past 34 years, the feather in her cap has been that of a woman making good on the deathbed wish of her sister Susan.

Founder and CEO, Nancy BrinkerFounder and CEO, Nancy Brinker

As CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Brinker is on a mission to cure breast cancer. In the process, her efforts have ignited an internationally recognized pink ribbon phenomenon and changed the word "breast" from a whispered word to a shouted social cause. In the past 12 months alone Komen for the Cure has funded $66 million in breast cancer research and $93 million in community grants for outreach and education, provided 700,000 mammograms and helped over 100,000 breast cancer victims with financial and social support.

But she's not done yet. Determined to keep what might be the country's largest grass-roots charity effort running at full speed, Brinker's mission has led her to forge several hundred corporate partnerships-and every one of them is unabashedly pink.

Ambassador Brinker gave us a call this week to catch us up on the latest goals for the foundation, recent pink backlash and what's in it for the business partners of cause-related marketing.

In Pictures: Top Corporate Sponsors of Susan G. Komen for the Cure

FW: After over 30 years of hard work on Komen for the Cure, the pink ribbon breast cancer phenomenon has exploded recently. In past years, every October's been coming up pink. What do you attribute this to?

NB: My sister asked me to cure breast cancer and I knew it wasn't going to be a little job. I thought we could make much more headway within 10 years but it wasn't that way. I found out that it was going to take a lot longer. This is a huge mission. But I'm happy with what's happened in the past five to six years. And I think you can attribute it to the fact that what we've built really works.

Why do you think that this pink campaign really resonates with the American public?

We have a very special talent as an organization to understand that people with breast cancer need a community. You have to bring people into the community with hope, an understanding of your mission and an ability to have them join the effort. People want to do something about this.

When my sister died, she had no community. She had nowhere to go. There were no 800 numbers for a patient to call, no patient advocacy, no multi-discipline cancer centers to offer support, few drugs on the shelf to treat her.

And what is it about pink and cause-based marketing for Komen that appeals to corporate America? What's in it for them?

We understand that they're businesses and not charities. What's in for them? Number one, they're building a closer affinity with their customer, their market and their workforce. Last time I checked, 50% of the workforce is female. And whether they're women or not, they do have sisters, mothers, aunts, partners or wives who are at-risk. As the second leading cancer killer of women, this isn't something not to be feared.

Companies also understand that we're good partners. We require certain things from them. They must demonstrate to us that they have an outreach program that reaches populations that we may not be able to reach otherwise. They must demonstrate that they're operating transparently. They must fully disclose to the public how much of a contribution they're making and what their part is in education and outreach. Look at American Airlines, New Balance, Ford. This is not just a financial play for them. See more of Susan G. Komen for the Cure's Top Corporate Sponsors, here.

There's a growing sentiment that we might have reached a saturation point of pink.

The attention span of the American public is a nanosecond. People are fractured, they're overwhelmed, busy with their own endeavors. Let's face it, we're bombarded by media, by other ads and campaigns.

But the pink is an iconic and instant symbol. We did our own survey of 1,000 people and found that 96% of the answering public were comfortable with pink ribbon being used to raise funds for breast cancer; 86% told us there wasn't too much pink.

We also did a study of a million and a half women over 40 and found that less than half of them receive regular mammograms. That's a really good reason to have a lot of pink around. Is there too much pink? I say there's not enough as long as a woman dies of breast cancer ever 74 seconds.

But in the end, the pink is a functional effort. The work of our foundation is where the beef is. It's where all this ends, where all this leads to. The funding of research hat wouldn't be done any other way. And the addressing of disparities that wouldn't be tackled any other way. The pink is a means to an end.

In Pictures: Top Corporate Sponsors of Susan G. Komen for the Cure

Let's talk criticisms. The first comes from a group of researchers who claim that the chemicals in the dye used to create the Komen color pink can cause cancer.

No. We take this very seriously. Every year 11% of our budget is funded towards environmental hazards, nutritional hazards, potentially causation and prevention. Are there substances we're looking carefully at? You bet. We funded a study which will be introduced at the largest breast cancer conference in the country, the San Antonio breast cancer symposium in the first week of December that looks at environmental substances that can cause cancer.

What we don't do is start making statements that are not scientifically and evidence-backed. Some of the claims that are made by some of these organizations are just simply not true.

Next: devoting this much attention to a single form of cancer does a disservice to research into other deadly conditions for women.

In a country like ours, we have the opportunity to speak for the things that we believe in. This is our mission. The research that we have done--and are doing--is in many places applicable to other forms and genetic causes of cancer. We bridge to other diseases. For example, outside of the U.S. we've taken on cervical cancer with the new pink ribbon/red ribbon program in partnership with the state department.

Video: Is Breast Cancer Research Overfunded?

We also mentor other organizations in the cancer community; more and more we're leading in that space. Many people have started up their own disease specific organizations under our tutelage.

What's on the horizon for Komen?

We are at the renaissance of cancer research in this country. We have a huge, huge opportunity now to operationalize the research that we've funded. But there are huge barriers in front of us: drug delivery, drug shortages, drug development. It takes years and years and unbelievable expense to deliver a drug to clinical use.

The overall goal is to learn what's causing this disease and how to prevent it. The short term goal is the management of the disease. We'd love to see the usage of the nanotechnologies that have been developed. We'd like to see women with transdermal patches that deliver medicine. We'd like to detect all breast cancer before it develops. We'd like to have a blood marker, so we could know that it's growing and rid a woman of it right there. We're as hungry and anxious as anybody and all we can do is push, advocate and continue to raise the kind of money it's going to take to get this done.

You began the foundation in honor of your sister. What do you think she would be the most proud of today?

She would be the most proud of the democratizing of the disease. We've reached so many people like herself. She would be very proud to see the growth of breast cancer research funding from about $25 million when she was a patient to hundreds of millions of dollars. She's be proud that I'm still here, pushing, pushing for this thing that still carries her name.

Read the full interview with Nancy Brinker here and see the full list of Top Corporate Sponsors of Susan G. Komen for the Cure here.

Detailed information on Susan G. Komen for the Cure's grants, research and programs can be found here.

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