Remarks: The Honda Classic Women’s Leadership Forum

Ambassador Nancy G Brinker                Tuesday, February 26, 2019



         Thank you all for having me, and thank you to Ken Kennerly for inviting me. I don’t think I’ve ever had an event organizer who was as well-prepared, and who made their guests seem more comfortable, than Ken!

It’s a real honor to be here at the Honda Classic with so many fantastic women – not least of all is our amazing first speaker – Suzy Whaley.

         I guess I’ve always been inspired by Suzies. My sister, Suzy. And now Suzy Wheeler. Suzy is a real inspiration. Whether it’s been on the golf course or in the board room, she’s never been afraid to mix it up with the boys. So I thank her for setting such a great example. She is a tough act to follow.

         My own history with golf is a little less impressive…  Much as I would love to, I have never been able to take up the sport.

         Both my parents played golf. Mom was better, but we were never allowed to say that to my Dad. In fact, one day Dad came home from golf without his clubs. We asked my Mom, and she told he had thrown his clubs in the lake and weren’t to tell him. Unfortunately, I think I have my father’s temper.

         My other challenge with golf is that year ago I was diagnosed with attention deficit issues that make it hard to focus for long periods. My mind is a lot like an internet browser – there are 17 tabs open, 3 are frozen, and I have no idea where that music is coming from. So for the sport of golf, my attention span is just too short, but so were my drives and my putts so it all worked out. A few years ago, I took up boxing instead. This has appealed to me greatly, especially my temper, and shows you’re never too young or too old to try something new.

         Despite my lack of success on the golf course, I am very proud of the success that I was able to build with this sport’s leadership – especially the LPGA. Back in 1992, when Susan G. Komen was just getting off the ground, the LPGA named us as its only national charity. This meant so much.

         With so many sports leagues, there is an urge to make their athletes seem healthy, immortal and larger than life. What the LPGA did was help shine a light on a disease that was impacting their fans, their executives and even their players. It was a very brave step, at a time when very few were willing to do it. I will always be grateful to them.

         Women helping women is so very important. It underscores everything I have tried to do in my own life. And today, we are fortunate to actually witness some of the benefits and outcomes that have arisen from our shared work.

         This is a historically important time for women. Last month, a record number of women were sworn-in to Congress. No matter your politics, I believe it is a good thing to have women serving in government and we need to encourage more to run for office. Last year, we saw the #MeToo movement take root in Hollywood and in board rooms, putting people on notice that boorish behavior and glass ceilings would no longer be tolerated.

         But even as we celebrate these victories, we know that this is simply not enough. Too often, women are still not treated fairly, taken seriously, or simply being heard. There are so many areas where there is still progress that must be made. And I believe one of the most important is with women’s health care. This issue has been my life’s passion.

         For me, it all began with a phone call. It was my big sister Suzy, calling me panicked because she had found a lump in her breast. At the age of 33, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Three years later she was gone.

         It is important to remember that 40 years ago, breast cancer wasn’t just a life-threatening disease. It was a social stigma. People thought it might be contagious. After Suzy’s diagnosis, some people would cross the street to avoid her. You couldn’t even say the words “breast cancer” on television.

         As Suzy lay dying, she took my hand and asked me to promise her that I’d do everything in my power to end the threat of breast cancer forever. I promised her. And that promise became the foundation for Susan G. Komen.

         When we began, we weren’t just fighting a disease; we were fighting a society that didn’t want to hear about it. And certainly did not want to hear from a group of women.

         After my promise to Suzy, I began to organize my friends in the Dallas area where I lived. It was just a small group of us. We had a shoebox, some index cards and a broken typewriter – which was just fine because our secretary later admitted that she didn’t know how to type. Were like an internet start-up… without the internet. It’s still hard to believe a global cancer movement could begin from there.

         But instead of focusing on what we lacked, we focused on what we had. The people who started Susan G. Komen all had their lives impacted by breast cancer in some way. Some were survivors. Others had family or friends who fought the disease. So while we weren’t doctors or scientists, in many respects we were something more powerful – moms, wives, daughters and sisters. We had passion, and knew others impacted by the disease would share that passion.

         But in spite of that passion, the early years were a lesson in failure. As we tried to learn more about the disease, we talked to a lot of physicians – who in those days were mostly men. We were not taken seriously. They thought we’d get bored or lose interest. They didn’t think we would ever understand the science. But the exact opposite happened. The more we learned, the more we were interested in understanding. And our enthusiasm and determination grew.

At the same time, I can’t tell you how many times we were dismissed, hung up on, and had doors slammed in our face. I remember one gentleman tell me that no one would ever come to a Race for the Cure.

         One of our earliest ideas was to partner with the intimate apparel industry. After all, if you want to reach out to women about breast cancer, what better way than by talking to people who manufacture bras?

         I flew to New York City to meet with one of the largest companies in this field. They told me “No way,” and that the last thing they would ever want is to have their product associated with cancer. I was furious. But as the anger subsided, it dawned on me that they had a point.

The culture surrounding breast cancer at the time was a culture of death – of disease, disfigurement, and hopelessness. I recognized if we were going to fight this disease, we had to change the culture surrounding it.

So we used the color pink – Suzy’s favorite color – to help brand our effort.

We used events like the Race for the Cure to build a community, and show women they were not alone.

And we used the passion of women and men who had been touched by this disease to build community affiliates.

And from there, the movement grew. And in the past 40 years,

  • We raised and invested nearly $1 billion dollars into breast cancer research – second only to the U.S. government.
  • We invested more than $2.2 billion dollars into screening, education and treatment programs.
  • And most importantly, we saw a 38 percent decline in mortality from breast cancer in the United States between 1989 and 2014.

I’m proud of these accomplishments, but I’m not satisfied. Marie Curie, the famous scientist who was the first person to win two Nobel prizes said, “One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.”

And I as I look around, the work that remains to be done is right here in Florida – and it has to do with health care disparities. Two recent studies demonstrate the problem. One found that Florida ranks 50th of 50 states in dedicating adequate funding for health services to women under 65. A second study – released last month – discovered a growing disparity in cancer deaths.

         We’ve made great progress in research, treatment and education, but people of color and women with limited access to resources are increasingly more likely to die from cancer than others. This is especially true in Florida. Over the past five years, 15,000 Florida women died from breast and cervical cancer – most of whom had unmet needs.

         Cancer experts say addressing health care disparities is the last piece needed to complete the cancer movement. And that is why I have co-founded the Promise Fund.

         The Promise Fund is a first-of-its-kind program that brings services to these individuals, who otherwise cannot get to us. We are embedding health care navigators into high-risk communities to provide education, screening and care if needed. These navigators won’t just be talking to communities; they will be living in communities. And research has shown that navigation patients have significantly better health outcomes and survival rates.

         I am excited about the Promise Fund, but I know that our work will not be easy. Fortunately, I’ve heard that my work is impossible for forty years. And in the course of those forty years, I’ve seen amazing things.

         The fight against breast cancer has taken me to every corner of the globe. And I have witnessed how this horribly deadly disease, instead of alienating individuals, can actually unite people.

         In previously divided Sarajevo, we had 4,000 Bosnians – representing Muslims, Serbs, Croats and Jews – show up for our first Race for the Cure.

         During our first race in Egypt, we hoped for 1,000 runners – and were met with 7,000 brave women. Some of these women were covered head-to-toe in burqas except for one distinguishing feature… a pink race bib.

         In Israel, the first Jerusalem Race for the Cure brought 5,000 people together: Jews, Muslims and Christians. The mayor of Jerusalem told me it was the only event he could remember in the city that brought only unity – without dissension.

         This is the opportunity now before us. To come together. To work together. And to take the final steps necessary to end the power of cancer.

         Margaret Mead once said, “Don’t ever doubt that a small, thoughtful group of citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

         In my own life, I’ve seen this saying come true. And I’ve seen that there is no greater power than the power of women standing united, ready to help one another. And that’s why I’m glad to be part of such a group of strong, thoughtful women here today. Thank you for having me!