Mother’s Day in the Mud
Eric Brinker is often referred to as our longest-running volunteer. The son of founder and CEO Nancy G. Brinker, Eric grew up with the breast cancer movement, and went on to become a Komen national board member, global ambassador, and Race chair and board member of the Susan G. Komen Peoria Affiliate.
Reading recent reports on how Susan G. Komen for the Cure fundraising has been impacted by recent events, I was reminded how far we’ve come, not since January’s Twitter-storm, but since 1977, when newspapers considered the words “breast cancer” unfit to print.
That year, my 33-year-old Aunt Suzy was diagnosed. Awareness was too little too late. Breast cancer was shrouded in shame and ineffectually treated. Watching her sister suffer and die, my mom, Nancy Brinker, was seared with a sense of purpose that met with her natural talent for research and a passion for patient advocacy that bordered on bulldozer. She promised her sister that breast cancer would be different for women in the future.
Mom sweated every detail of the first Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation event in 1982, pinching every penny, calling in favors from years of fundraising for other charities. It was the perfect Dallas lawn party—except for the torrential rain. That morning, Mom slogged through the mud in her pink high heels, sobbing, “I’m sorry, Suzy, I’m sorry.” The money involved was nothing compared to her sorrow at not keeping her promise.
As Mom’s first volunteer, I grew up with the organization eventually renamed Susan G. Komen for the Cure. (My friends were impressed with the illustrated breast self-exam cards and life-size feel-for-the-lump demo breasts stored in the corner of my room.) Over the years, as Susan G. Komen raised more than $2 billion and rallied 1.7 million volunteers, I saw Mom lifted up by supporters and torn down by detractors. I was by her side when President Obama awarded her the Medal of Freedom and when critics condemned her for 20+ years of Komen funding breast exams at Planned Parenthood clinics for women who often had no other place to go.
The Nancy Brinker I know is a broad-minded, basically well-behaved Jewish girl from Peoria, who saw something wrong and did something about it. People either love her or hate her because she makes it impossible to sit there with a broken heart and a bucket of excuses. My mom is living proof that every one of us can make a difference.
That said, she is human, as is the Susan G. Komen staff, I and my fellow board members and everyone involved in this movement. We all make mistakes. Without rehashing the whole Planned Parenthood grant situation, I’ll say we failed to think it through. Accustomed to triaging breast cancer, not PR debacles, we stumbled. Viral response rapidly morphed into a pandemic of misinformation.
She apologized. We apologized. Most of the credit for the wealth of good will we’ve enjoyed over the years belongs to our local affiliates, on-the-ground volunteers and generous corporate sponsors. We won’t let them down again. On a personal note, I’d also like to tell my mom that I’m sorry I failed to get between her and the oncoming freight train.
For years, the public perception was breast cancer + pink = good, but the complexity of this organization—and the disease itself—was never fully understood. What matters now is the opportunity to bring people back with more information and, hopefully, a greater sense of urgency.
Not everyone will hear us. Responding to bloggers who misrepresent our research spending is as futile as responding to snark about Mom’s big hair. What matters is transparency. We’re making changes, including additional board representation from local Affiliates, and we welcome anyone who wants the real facts about how we manage to reach around the world with no government funding, funding the most breast cancer research of any non-profit, and helping hundreds of thousands of women every year.
Rumors abounded that I was forced to give up my board seat. In fact, I stepped aside after my term ended, to make room for an additional Affiliate.
Our leaders and volunteers are galvanized with the same purpose—usually for the same reasons—as my mom, who not only lost her sister to breast cancer, she lost her breasts. She survived a mastectomy and chemotherapy; mudslinging doesn’t quite compare.
Back in 1982, standing in the rain with her big hair deflating, Mom saw a car pull into the parking lot, followed by another and another. At the end of the day, the mud didn’t matter. Our community understood the need and rallied to help.
30 years later, in the aftermath of controversy, we’re seeing some impact in revenues in some parts of the country. But as our Mother’s Day Races approach, we’re seeing our communities rally to help. We appreciate those thousands of moms, dads, daughters, sons, sisters and brothers who are continuing to support us, because thousands more are depending on Komen every day to find a cure for breast cancer, and help those who suffer with it today.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. Together, we’ll weather the storm.
About the author
Eric Brinker is often called the longest-running volunteer at Susan G. Komen for the Cure. The son of Komen founder and CEO Nancy G. Brinker, and nephew of Susan G. Komen for whom Susan G. Komen for the Cure is named, Eric is active with national Komen volunteer work and with Komen’s Memorial Affiliate in Peoria. Before she died, Susan G. Komen made Nancy promise that she would do everything in her power to end breast cancer, and Eric grew up watching (and helping) his mother fulfill that promise through Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the largest breast cancer organization in the world. Today, Brinker is president and owner of Metro Leasing Company in Peoria, Ill., a volunteer with the Komen Peoria Memorial Affiliate and was an original member of the JetBlue Airways marketing team, instrumental in establishing the airline's customer service and brand marketing positioning.