An In-Depth Interview With Nancy Brinker, Founder and CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure

03/08/2011 05:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Today, March 8, is International Women's Day, and in advance of the occasion, I conducted an in-depth interview with Nancy Brinker, Founder and CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. We discussed the evolution of the organization, the state of breast cancer today and the current gaps in research, her role as Goodwill Ambassador for Cancer Control at the World Health Organization, how Susan G. Komen built massive corporate engagement, and the use and role of "pink" to galvanize a global movement to end breast cancer.

Below is an excerpt of the interview, while the full 3500-word discussion can be found here.

Rahim Kanani: Let's start with the founding of the organization in 1982. What have been some of the major milestones and achievements since inception, nearly 30 years ago?

Ambassador Brinker: Actually, let me take you back 50 years, when I was a little girl growing up in Peoria, Illinois. I watched how America organized around polio -- a deadly killer. Everyone was involved in the war against it. Science was funded. Teachers, parents, people from all walks of life, were mobilized, and this was long before the Internet. When the vaccine was announced, it was as if a war had ended -- church bells rang and schools closed. That was my early childhood education of how a society could deal with a deadly disease.

Cancer is different, but we had almost the same kind of fear and lack of knowledge about the disease when my sister, Suzy, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1977. There were people in America who honestly thought that cancer was contagious. They would cross the street when they saw Suzy coming. No one discussed cancer, much less breast cancer. Women were dealing in a vacuum -- no cell phones, no Internet, no 1-800 numbers, no patient advocacy.

One generation later, we talk about breast cancer. Susan G. Komen has funded almost $2 billion for education, awareness, advocacy and research. And the progress has been incremental -- but stunningly incremental. Five-year survival rates improving from 74 percent to 98 percent for early-stage disease; death rates reduced by 31 percent in 20 years. More knowledge about the disease and more treatments.

It's nowhere near what I had hoped to see when I started, but it is vastly, vastly improved, and we've done all of this with grassroots and corporate support. We're now reaching out to large donors and foundations, asking them to invest in the transformational work that we're doing for breast cancer -- to say "Komen, you're doing great work. We want to invest in you to move the needle this way," and provide the funds that will help us make even more progress.

How wonderful would it be to see someone, one private investor, write a large check for breast cancer research? I'd love to see more women in positions of corporate leadership challenging each other to raise the bar for funding awareness and treatment of women's cancers. That's what we really need to see.

Rahim Kanani: Is it possible that the perception of how well-known the organization is overshadows the urgency of giving because it looks as though you are extremely well-funded?

Ambassador Brinker: Perhaps. And yet look at the enormity and the cost to develop treatments. And it's not just research -- research is how we lead. Susan G. Komen is the largest funder of breast cancer research but we're also the largest supporter of community programs. We set up the infrastructure in thousands of communities in America through our Affiliate network. We partner with 1,900 organizations delivering services, screening, education, financial aid and social support. And we're doing the same thing internationally -- we are well engaged in more than 50 countries.

We're probably the only breast cancer organization that believes that we need to raise money to support research and to support the community. Because if you don't steward what you know and you don't do it throughout a population, going back to the polio model, what have you really done?

Rahim Kanani: Since the organization has done such an incredible job of both building awareness and advancing the science, how would you characterize that relationship? Has the increased awareness pushed for scientific advancement, or has the scientific advancement generated increased awareness?

Ambassador Brinker: I think it's both. You can't have one without the other, but I will tell you that first, people must be aware. There was hardly anyone who understood, when I started, what a huge problem breast cancer was becoming -- that all cancer was becoming. That awareness helped bond the community around funding the science.

Rahim Kanani: What is it about breast cancer that we still don't know?

Ambassador Brinker: We still don't fully understand questions like: How does cancer evolve from normal breast tissue? What are the progenitors? What are the factors that create a rapid growth? What is the not-fully-understood reaction between hormones and breast cancer? What happens to a tumor in a human body, not just what happens, but how does it happen? Why are certain forms more prevalent in some ethnic groups? Prevention -- is it about substances that we ingest or are exposed to, or is it genetic?

We're working very hard on all of those questions -- we're most excited about biomarkers, PARP inhibitors and prevention.

Rahim Kanani: What role does the organization's brand and identity -- pink -- play in shaping and furthering this global movement?

Ambassador Brinker: At the time I started this all I knew was pink was my sister's favorite color, and in my book Promise Me there's a picture of my sister as homecoming queen, with a pink sash. Those were our first colors because I knew she loved pink. Pink is a feminine and strong color.

We're sometimes criticized for pink, but in our minds, there's not enough pink when someone dies of breast cancer every 69 seconds somewhere in the world. There's not enough awareness when women don't even know their own risks. We need to have a lot more pink, so get ready. It's not going anywhere. It's only going to get bigger. If you don't like it, help us do something about it.

Rahim Kanani: Expand a bit about your role as the Goodwill Ambassador for Cancer Control at the World Health Organization (WHO).

Ambassador Brinker: Margaret Chan (WHO Director-General) asked me if I would take this role and I agreed. We at Susan G. Komen deal with heads of other countries developing global strategies, and we're very focused on low resource countries. Most of these low resource countries don't even have cancer registries, so they don't even know who dies of the disease. I had worked as Ambassador to Hungary and as U.S. Chief of Protocol -- I had the opportunity to talk with world leaders and many did not recognize cancer as a major issue; they thought of it as a rich person's disease and a wasting disease.

Many low resource countries are afraid to take on another big killer because of the economic impact, but they need to, because 70 percent of the new cancer cases are happening in countries that have less than 5 percent of the resources.

We want to build on existing health platforms in those countries to develop effective education and screening and treatment programs. We know what to do. Again, it's the will to get it done. Women's health must be on the working agendas of the G20, the G8, and the United Nations.

Rahim Kanani: How would you characterize the new White House agenda towards this end?

Ambassador Brinker: We want to work as closely as we can with the White House. Our concern is making sure that in the cancer space, we are able to maintain the ground that we have fought for so hard and not let people slip backwards. I'm very concerned about the burdens being placed on state governments, and our very strong, very vocal Komen Advocacy Alliance is ready to fight for screening and treatment programs in all 50 states.

Rahim Kanani: Going back to Komen as a movement and a foundation, how have you been so successful in building corporate engagement?

Ambassador Brinker: Our partners are essential members of the Komen family who help us raise the funds but -- very importantly -- help with education and awareness. We don't just take money and say, 'Oh, great. Now just put our ribbon on your product.' Our partners are asked to undertake an obligation to educate their employees and their customers -- whoever they can reach. And they do. So when some groups criticize corporate involvement, my answer to them is, 'We are witnessing a unique paradigm in our society, that is, the private sector tackling a very serious disease and creating a more interested and engaged consumer public as a result.'

Rahim Kanani: What is your vision for Komen over the next years?

Ambassador Brinker: I guess imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Other people are now talking about their year 2020 plans. About five years ago we started talking about 2020 and when I came back as CEO we formalized our 2020 program.

We are committing to cure at least one form of lethal breast cancer within the decade, and cure is a word that we need to break down into long-term survival, long-term management with quality of life. In advocacy, we will fight for our Susan G. Komen Bill of Rights to ensure access to cancer care for all women.

And globally, we're going to bring this mission to women everywhere. We're going to elevate the issue of cancer. We're going to develop and work to deliver screening and early treatment and we're going to affect thinking all over the world. That is our commitment.

Rahim Kanani: What do you think is least understood about Susan G. Komen?

Ambassador Brinker: A few things. The first might be that we're perceived as too big, too much like a business. This recent trademark issue, for example, has led to a lot of misunderstanding. We do have trademarks. Now why do we do that? We were named one of the two most trusted charities in America last year. When we put that Susan G. Komen for the Cure mark on a program, it tells people you can trust that this program is being done according to Komen's standards. This is very important and it is what our donors require of us.

People don't understand that we don't put small charities out of business. We don't want to do anything of the kind, and we work with most of them so that people don't confuse us.

Rahim Kanani: So this is primarily about maintaining the integrity of the brand?

Ambassador Brinker: We are maintaining the integrity of who we are and what we hold sacred and that is integrity, honesty, trying very hard to deliver what we have promised. We have never let the public down yet in what we have promised and we will not ... more.