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Taking The Fight Beyond the Ring: WWE and Susan G. Komen's Partnership to End Breast Cancer

10/28/2013 12:52 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

In 1982, a promise a woman made her sister became a reality. Nancy G. Brinker grew up in admiration of her beautiful sister, Susan. She watched as Susan completed college, signed a modeling contract and married the love of her life, Stan. She also watched as breast cancer stripped away the promise that Susan's life held. As Susan G. Komen battled breast cancer and succumbed to the disease's terrible effects, Nancy Brinker made her sister a solemn promise: To do everything she could to end breast cancer.

Some 31 years later, a man held onto a similar promise for his brother. At 6'1, 250 lbs. and best known for his success inside of the wrestling ring, WWE Superstar John Cena was arguably the most unlikely candidate to lead a new crusade against breast cancer. Yet, for Cena, like Nancy G. Brinker, the battle was personal: It was about family.

"I had a personal run-in with cancer. My youngest brother, Sean, had an inoperable brain tumor. He's the last of five boys, so he's the most reserved out of all of us. I saw what he went through though, and the treatment he had to rely upon. I saw him going through being a boy to becoming a man. What he went through keeps us so motivated. Around the family, we call him our 'silent champion,'" Cena explained.

As Cena recounts the battle his brother, Sean, waged against brain cancer, he is quick to point out something that kept Sean alive: Early detection. "Through early detection, my brother did very well in his fight against cancer," Cena noted.

Recognizing the role that early detection played in saving his brother's life, Cena realized that he was in a unique position to help other people's brothers and sisters. As a WWE champion and the third-most followed athlete in America, Cena's personal story and athletic platform put him in a position to educate others of the benefits of early detection. "I was emotionally overwhelmed with excitement as my brother's treatment went on. I wanted to take my status and what I could offer to send my message out," Cena explained.

With this passion motivating him, Cena did something unheard of amongst male athletes of his stature: He stood up against breast cancer. Recognizing that he wasn't what he calls the "poster child of who was involved with Susan G. Komen," Cena nonetheless "proactively tried to get WWE involved with Susan G. Komen." And as he does with his competitors in the ring through his strength and personality, Cena was able to convince WWE and Susan G. Komen to come together in a partnership.

2012 marked the first year of WWE's partnership with Susan G. Komen. Last year, WWE raised $1 million for Susan G. Komen. It expects to exceed that amount of fundraising this year through donating 20 percent of the retail sales price of all "Rise Above Cancer" merchandise sold through December 31 on WWEShop.com and at WWE live events.

While Susan G. Komen is grateful for the funds WWE has donated to its cause, the attention the WWE brings to breast cancer awareness and early screening programs is invaluable. "This partnership has far exceeded our expectations. Last year after National Breast Cancer Awareness month, we received a $1 million donation from WWE. More than that, though, we were able to increase awareness about breast cancer issues among women and men, which has been a huge advantage for us. 40-percent of the viewership of WWE is female. WWE's viewership is very diverse, and as such, WWE presents a reach to an audience that is sometimes difficult for us to reach. The awareness that came with the attention that John Cena gave to this issue and Susan G. Komen through WWE has been great," said Susan G. Komen's president and CEO, Dr. Judith A. Salerno.

WWE's reach has allowed Susan G. Komen to educate members of society it may not otherwise come into contact with about the importance of breast cancer issues, including early detection. WWE has used its digital presence to send out educational messages about screening via Twitter and Facebook. Additionally, the number of the organization's Superstars and Divas who have thrown their support behind the cause has grown exponentially in the first two years of the partnership. While Cena was the face of the partnership last year, over 30 WWE Superstars and Divas have become involved this year. "The reach of this organization has been fantastic for us," Salerno said.

Like Cena and Brinker, one WWE Diva had a personal tie to cancer that motivated her involvement with the cause. WWE Diva Layla El's mother fought breast cancer. Using her own personal stories, El filmed one of WWE's first public service announcements after it partnered with Susan G. Komen. More inspiring perhaps, was the journey El took to obtain her first mammogram. The procedure coincided with the anniversary of El's mother's death. "For her, knowing about her mother's story made this a big choice. What was amazing, is that she allowed us to document her feelings as the date approach and she spoke to why she waited until this point. Thankfully, though, she had a great result," said Susan G. Komen's vice president of marketing, Dorothy Jones.

Although in its infancy, the impact WWE's partnership with Susan G. Komen has made is strong. What the two organizations can continue to do in the fight against breast cancer, though, is limitless. "If you look back to when Susan G. Komen was founded in the early 1980s, nobody spoke about breast cancer. It was a taboo subject. Through the years and the support of many people who have told us their stories, starting with Betty Ford when she broke ground talking about her battle with breast cancer, it has made a huge difference. Look at the press Angelina Jolie received after she publicly announced her bilateral mastectomy. It's been very important to have people who are willing to tell their story, because it is what raises awareness and increases people's likelihood to get screened," Salerno explained.

Like Ford and Jolie, Cena's willingness to become a spokesperson in the fight against breast cancer is precedent setting. "When you have men stepping up as spokespeople, it's very effective. While we think of this as -- and it is -- primarily a disease that affects women, there are men who also are diagnosed with breast cancer. These celebrities have helped us bring breast cancer out of the shadows and into public discussions," Salerno noted.

For Salerno and Susan G. Komen, they have found a man who is willing to use his strong platform to further the crusade against breast cancer. For that man, though, he has found a chance to give back in a way that he's passionate about. "Giving back to others puts a sense of validity in what you do. I truly am nothing more than a big kid. I love my job, but at the end of the day, you want to feel as if you accomplished something. When you do something positive like this and hopefully defeat cancer, it really gives you a sense of validity. When survivors thank you for spreading awareness, it sends a message that you can make a difference and that's very rewarding," Cena remarked.