Fulfilling Our Promise to Women around the Globe
I’m always appreciative for the opportunity on International Women’s Day to step back and review the progress and challenges ahead for the world’s women. And in my view, few issues are as important as women’s health, especially in developing and low-resource countries.
The progress that’s been made against HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and maternal health in low- and middle-income countries has been impressive in just a few short decades. Now, the International Association for Research on Cancer estimates that cancer will grow exponentially over the next 25 years, and its impact will be especially difficult in the low- and middle-income countries with the fewest resources to deal with it.
When I promised my sister, Suzy, that I would do everything I could to end breast cancer, I knew even then that we had to take our promise everywhere, especially to places where women with cancer often have no defenses, no advocates, and little understanding of what they are up against. But I never dreamed that Susan G. Komen would one day be working in 30 countries, investing millions into research and outreach to help the most vulnerable women of our world.
Their stories are heartbreaking: In my travels, I’ve held the hands of women who arrive for treatment with tumors breaking through their skin. Some travel for days to get medical attention. Others face shame and stigma from a cancer diagnosis, especially a breast cancer diagnosis, which in some regions of the world means women may be separated from their families or otherwise ostracized.
Susan G. Komen’s international work stems from our heartfelt belief that where a woman lives shouldn’t determine whether she lives. And so we expanded our mission outside of the United States 20 years ago, with our first research grant in Israel. Since then, we’ve invested $46 million in international research and more than $31 million in programs that reach – and help – the women who need us outside the U.S.
We have many success stories from this work. We’re proud to be a founding member of the Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon® initiative – formed in 2011 to address cervical and breast cancer through existing platforms for HIV/AIDS screenings and treatment in Africa and Latin America. The founding partners were the George W. Bush Institute, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), with corporate and foundation members. With initial commitments of $85 million across five years, Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon’s goals are to reduce deaths from cervical cancer by 25 percent among women screened and treated through the initiative; reduce deaths from breast cancer by promoting early detection, increase access to HPV vaccinations, and awareness of breast and cervical cancer prevention, screening and treatment, and to reduce stigma. Very importantly, our goals are to create models that can be used globally.
We’re also pleased to work in partnership in Latin America, where Susan G. Komen and the Caterpillar Foundation have been partnering for years to improve detection of breast cancer and save lives. We’ve increased awareness, strengthened health services, and removed barriers to access in many program communities.
I am proud that our Latin America programs have helped more than 7,000 women access breast cancer screening services – many for the first time! We have also reached more than 3.5 million women through breast cancer awareness campaigns, trained more than 1,100 medical providers on breast cancer concepts, and educated more than 21,000 community members on breast self-awareness. We’re on a mission to save lives in Latin America.
In the Caribbean, we were shocked to learn that 48 percent of Bahamian women are diagnosed with breast cancer under age 50, and that not only are 50 percent of Bahamian women with breast cancer diagnosed with stage III or stage IV, but 23 percent of these women carry the BRCA1 gene mutation – the highest known population in the world to carry this mutation. In 2012, we launched our first public/private partnership in the Bahamas, with the Government of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas and Sunshine Insurance Marathon Bahamas, to form the Breast Cancer Planning Committee. The BCPC is working to coordinate breast health efforts and strengthen health systems.
Those are just a few examples of programs we’ve launched in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, the Caribbean and central Europe. We can’t afford to slow down in our global race against this disease. We must keep fighting – and be hopeful! Progress can be made, as our work in the U.S. attests. Five-year survival rates for early stage breast cancers (those that have not left the breast) are at 99 percent today, versus 74 percent when we started our work. Death rates from breast cancer have declined by 34 percent since 1990. We’re now focused on treatments for metastatic disease, and ways to prevent breast cancer. And we won’t rest until we’ve brought cures, and an end to breast cancer, wherever we find it.
It’s taken 30 years – so far – and we have a duty to share all that we have learned and accomplished with women all over the world.
In so many areas of global health diplomacy, certainties are hard to come by. But I can promise you this: If we turn more of our energy and resources on the global cancer crisis, we can move faster toward saving more lives.
About the author
Ambassador Nancy G. Brinker founded Susan G. Komen on a promise she made to her sister, Susan G. Komen, that she would do everything in her power to end breast cancer. She led a relentless breast cancer information and awareness campaign and succeeded in breaching the silence surrounding the disease, fundamentally changing the way it is talked about and treated. She started the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure® and also pioneered cause-related marketing, both of which have had a profound impact on the breast cancer movement. An outspoken champion of all people with breast cancer as well as those who are at risk for developing the disease, Ambassador Brinker takes her cause and her passion all over the world, seeking the fresh input and international partnerships essential to ending breast cancer forever. Among her many leadership roles, Brinker served as U.S. Ambassador to Hungary from 2001-2003 and as U.S. Chief of Protocol from 2007-2009.