The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation: A Promise Between Two Sisters Engages, Benefits Millions Nationwide
A determined young woman's promise to her dying sister led to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, which now helps millions of women in the United States and elsewhere to detect and overcome the disease
by Jean Maza
Associate Manager of Communication
The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation
The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation is celebrating its 20th anniversary as a global catalyst in the fight against breast cancer.
Headquartered in Dallas, Texas, and powered by a highly diverse network of mover than 75,000 volunteers in 118 Affiliate groups across the United States and in Germany, Italy and Puerto Rico, the Komen Foundation’s mission is to eradicate breast cancer as a life-threatening disease through the advancement of research, education, screening and treatment.
It began with a promise between two young women in Peoria, Illinois – two devoted sisters – whose time together was cut short when one of them developed breast cancer. Komen Founder Nancy Brinker promised her sister, Susan G. Komen, that she would do everything in her power improve the existing picture for breast cancer patients.
Susan ‘Suzy’ Komen, age 36, died of breast cancer at a time when polite people didn’t talk about the disease, when most women received their diagnoses in secrecy and shame and when patients had little choice but to undergo rigorous and often disfiguring treatment. The term early detection didn’t exist, nor did widespread access to screening mammography, which is considered to be the ‘gold standard’ in finding and diagnosing breast cancer in its earliest, most treatable stages.
When grief over losing her sister gave way to gritty determination, Nancy Brinker set out to raise public awareness of breast health and breast cancer issues and to push breast cancer higher on the agenda of the general public, researchers, physicians and legislators. She went door to door, office to office, enlisting the support of people at first reluctant to discuss the issue of breast cancer. In 1982, the foundation bearing her late sister’s name was established and breast cancer made its way into the public dialogue.
Nancy Brinker addressed the need for accessible, affordable screening mammography, for more research into a possible cure, on dignified treatment of breast cancer patients and improved access to more and better options for treatment. As the Foundation grew through the addition of Affiliate groups across the country, Komen’s reputation for solid, reliable breast cancer information took hold.
The Foundation’s three-step approach to breast health for women over age 40 has helped women and their physicians find, diagnose and treat breast cancer in its early stages. This simple approach has empowered women to get to know their bodies in order to note suspicious changes as soon as they occur. Becoming familiar with changes in breast shape, texture or contour and learning to recognize abnormalities allows a woman to serve as her own ‘first alert’ system.
The three steps to breast health that the Komen Foundation recommends are:
- Learn how to do breast self-examination (BSE) by age 20, and do it at the end of each menstrual period or on the same date each month.
- Arrange to have a clinical breast exam (CBE) administered by a trained healthcare provider once each year, preferably during the annual well woman exam
- Schedule a screening mammogram once annually at age 40 at a certified screening facility and arrange to have the films sent to your primary health care provider.
Komen suggests that women under the age of 40 who have a history of cancer in their family discuss the benefit of starting yearly screening mammography earlier. Komen is now leading the way in reaching into younger populations of women with information about monthly BSE and the importance of clinical breast examinations. Through BSE, women in their 20s can develop body awareness that can serve them well now, as well as in the future. While women over the age of 50 are statistically more likely to get breast cancer than younger women, more cases of women under the age of 50 getting breast cancer are being reported.
Nancy Brinker’s admittedly headstrong and big-hearted reputation for working the phones, knocking on doors, seeking the support of influential figures in business and government, persuading individuals to become major donors enlisting companies and corporations into lending generous cash or in-kind support have put the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation at the forefront of breast cancer fundraising and patient advocacy around the world. Her visionary ideas have made Komen the lead example of responsible and responsive cause-related marketing in corporate America. The Foundation has found that meeting people where they live and offering them multiple opportunities to support an important cause through the consumer choices they make has enormous appeal to busy Americans. It is also a powerful messaging medium.
Perhaps the most visionary opportunity for involvement in the fight against breast cancer is Komen’s signature event, the Komen Race for the Cure® 5K run/fitness walk. The event has drawn the public out onto the streets of America for the last 20 years to get some exercise, raise money, increase awareness and celebrate survivorship. More than 1.4 million people participated in Komen Race for the Cure events last year in 1142 cities across the United States and in Europe.
While the majority of money raised at Komen Race for the Cure events up to 75 percent stays within the sponsoring community to fund locally based outreach programs, a percentage of each Race’s proceeds at least 25 percent) is used to fund research grants around the world. Since its inception, the Foundation and its Affiliate network have awarded hundreds of international grants totaling more than $110 million for important breast cancer research.
“The Race is now 20 years old and the concept is still very popular with the general public,” said Komen Founder Nancy Brinker. “The enthusiasm we see at the races clearly goes beyond the excitement of Race day itself. People are enthusiastic about the part they play in raising money and awareness to bring about real change “The Komen Race for the Cure has become a real tradition. Its significance has grown in direct proportion to the lives it has helped save, extend and improve.”
The money raised by the Komen Foundation through the Race for the Cure and other initiatives is used to advance the fight against breast cancer in the laboratory, in clinical and academic settings, in the halls of government, in rural areas and inner -city neighborhoods, in immigrant enclaves, in places of worship and in the workplace. For example:
Komen’s Award and Research Grant Program supports scientists involved in cellular biology, genetics, the study of proteins called proteomics, nuclear medicine, new imaging technologies, hormonal therapies and diagnostic approaches. Komen money is funding tomorrow’s research breakthroughs while supporting today’s existing breast health needs. By funding multidisciplinary fellowships for breast cancer specialists and advancing the work of researchers in the new field of survivorship, Komen takes a comprehensive approach to fighting breast cancer.
Komen believes that ‘informed is empowered,’ and it works through its grassroots Affiliate network to link women with breast health education materials that are accurate, understandable and culturally appropriate. Special advisory committees oversee the accuracy and the sensitivity of the information the Foundation conveys.
Screening mammography remains the ‘gold standard’ in the early detection of breast cancer. Since its inception, the Komen Foundation has worked to make screening safe, reliable, accurate and accessible so that no woman is left out of the picture. Through its nationwide network of Affiliates, Komen puts women in touch with quality screening facilities in their area and links economically disadvantaged women with low-cost or no-cost screening opportunities.
Komen’s Affiliates are instrumental in providing women with information about treatment options available in their communities. Where gaps in treatment and screening exist, Komen offers grant money to qualified institutions that are qualified and able to meet existing needs.
Komen and its Affiliates are on the local, state and federal government scene, discussing public policy issues such as continued funding of breast cancer-related programs, reimbursement and other insurance issues, improving the standards of screening mammography, advancing promising new drug therapies and delivering these treatments into the hands of physicians more quickly, and covering the needs of the medically underserved. Komen’s Champions for the Cure® program, a Web-based breast cancer advocacy initiative, has helped people across the nation stay informed about important developments on Capitol Hill and has offered them a convenient way to let their voices be heard.
To read more about The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, including information about breast cancer and to view the Foundation’s animated breast self- examination instructional tool, visit www.komen.org. The site also features information about new research, emerging issues in breast cancer, information about Komen’s grant program, the Foundation’s education outreach initiatives and ways to become actively involved as a volunteer with a local Komen Affiliate in your area.
The Komen Foundation’s National Toll-Free Breast Ccare Helpline (1.800. I’M AWARE) is a long-trusted source of up-to-date information about breast cancer. Specially trained volunteers, many of whom are breast cancer survivors, are available on line from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. CST, Monday through Friday, to listen to questions and discuss concerns about breast cancer. Working with the Komen Affiliate network, Komen Helpline operators are instrumental in linking women and their families with up-to-the-minute breast cancer information they need at a time when they need it most.