I’ve heard the name Susan G. Komen more times than I can count. It’s on pink ribbons, T-shirts and even cereal boxes, but at the dawn of this month, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it hit me that I didn’t really know her story. True, Susan G. Komen is the name of an organization and a movement, but it’s also the name of a person with a story, and I wanted to know more about the woman that incited such a revolution of hope.
In my searching, I came across this beautiful story written by Susan’s sister, Nancy G. Brinker, who made a promise to her dying sister that blossomed into the movement that’s transforming the way women battle breast cancer. If you have a few minutes, I encourage you to dive into Nancy’s deeply emotional narrative, as it’s laced with the kind of honest bravery, fear and love that gives you goosebumps.
Born in 1943 in Peoria, Illinois, Susan G. Komen was a beauty queen, described by her sister as “kind and loving, not only to me but to everyone.” High school homecoming queen, college beauty and later a model, Komen found a lump on her breast when she was only 33 years old.
In a time when the average woman wasn’t nearly as educated about breast cancer as we are today, Komen stayed with her family doctor rather than finding a cancer specialist. She went to a surgeon upon recommendation, and he did a subcutaneous mastectomy (removing tissue just from the inside of the breast) and declared confidently that Komen was cured.
“My heart sank because I knew enough to know that cure is a very difficult word to use in reference to cancer,” Brinker says in her narrative, remembering the moments after her older sister’s surgery. Though Komen adopted her surgeon’s confidence, the deadly disease reappeared months later, and it had spread.
Undergoing radiation treatment at the Mayo Clinic, losing her hair and accepting all the painful side effects surging through her body, Komen took hope from First Lady Betty Ford and her open fight with breast cancer.
“Nan,” she told her sister, “if Mrs. Ford can admit she has breast cancer and tell the whole world she intends to fight it, well then so can I.”
Fight though she did, Komen died at the age of 36 from breast cancer. Before her death, she told her sister she wanted to make the experience better for other women, particularly when it came to the sterile waiting rooms, where patients would often sit for hours on hard chairs surrounded by blank walls. And her sister agreed that she would take up the fight.
“I wanted to do something to let her know how special she would always be in my heart,” Brinker writes at the end of her story. “I was haunted by our last conversation and lay awake sometimes all night wondering what I could do to help other women with breast cancer.”
And such was the birth of Susan G. Komen For the Cure, a revolution of revolutions that has brought hope, healing and awareness to women across the globe.