By: Anne Schroeder Mullins,
Nancy Brinker is steamed.
As the founder of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization,
Brinker has been dragged back into a debate she thought had been settled long ago.
“I’m mad that we’re talking about mammograms again,” Brinker says. “This, to me, seems to be a very stupid thing to be discussing right now because we know it works, and it works a whole lot better than a lot of other things that people do.”
Brinker’s frustrations spring from a government task force report issued in mid-November that recommended that women get mammograms starting in their 50s — not in their 40s, as had been previously counseled. The new recommendations have triggered confusion and put Brinker in the middle of the controversy.
Her organization continues to recommend that most women start getting mammograms at 40. But the bigger issue for Brinker is the fallout from the report.
“What’s going to happen is that private insurers are going to look at [the panel’s recommendations], and they’re going to slice back. They’re going to say, ‘No, we’re just going to pay for mammograms every other year,’” Brinker fumes. “But they’re going to have us to deal with in a significant way because we’re mobilizing.”
Brinker isn’t one to shrink from a fight. In 1982, she launched the organization after promising to do everything she could to eradicate the disease that claimed the life of her sister, Susan G. Komen. At the time, Brinker was a 32-year-old ex-Neiman Marcus saleswoman. In the years since, Susan G. Komen for the Cure has emerged as one of the most recognizable institutions in the country.
The group’s signature pink ribbon has made its way onto everything from Visa cards to Mott’s apple juice. And its annual Race for the Cure brings together thousands of people on behalf of fighting breast cancer: In 2009, 45,000 people participated in the race, which raised $4.3 million. As the most expansive network of breast cancer activists and survivors in the world, the organization has put nearly $1.5 billion into the fight since its founding.
Branding expert John Weber says Brinker’s marketing campaign — which has gone so far as to cast the Egyptian Pyramids in pink lights — has been so effective that it has served as a model to others. “They’ve taken what can be and often is a horrible and hideous disease, and they have approached this whole thing from a very positive standpoint,” Weber says. “What they’ve done kind of transcends the brand; it’s become a movement.”
“She’s a diplomat,” says Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.). “She’s accepted across partisan lines and operates, really, as an ambassador.” Indeed, Brinker served as ambassador to
Cantor is just one of Brinker’s many friends on Capitol Hill. Other close allies include Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), a breast cancer survivor; Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas); and Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.).
“She’s going to solve this damn cancer thing,” Dingell says.
Dingell first came into contact with Brinker legislatively when he was shepherding a bill regarding mammograms and Pap smears. “We got a rumor that [then-President George H.W.] Bush was getting ready to veto the bill,” Dingell says. “I didn’t know how the hell we could deal with the thing, so I called [Brinker] up and told her he was going to veto it because it was too much intrusive government. In about an hour, she came back to me and said it will be fine.”
This, he says, “cemented a very close and valued friendship.” Such friendships will come in handy as Brinker fights to ensure that the panel’s recommendations don’t upend her life’s work.
Susan G. Komen for the Cure recently helped pass an amendment to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, authored by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), that would ensure that breast cancer screening is available for women ages 40 through 49. And Brinker won’t stop until the amendment is included in the final health reform bill.
“Mammography is still our best tool for early detection and successful treatment of this disease,” Jennifer Luray, head of the group’s Advocacy Alliance, told a House committee in early December. “We need to focus our attention on increasing access to screening. Currently, one-third of women are not being screened due to a lack of access, education and awareness.”
But in her fight to eradicate breast cancer, Brinker — who is herself a breast cancer survivor — wants Congress to do more than just expand access to screenings.
“If we have monitors that can see what you had for lunch as you walk through the airport, do you want to tell me we don’t have the technology that can detect a woman’s tumor, or a deep tumor in another kind of cancer patient, [and] tell you whether the tumor’s indolent or aggressive?” Brinker says. Such technology “is here. We just need to gather the political will to get it.”
And to do just that, Susan G. Komen for the Cure knows its next act: hosting a national technology summit in 2010.