Kenneth L Abbott, MD, FACP  |  10/20/2022

Susan Goodman Komen and the Pursuit of a Cure for Breast Cancer

If it is a secret, it is the worst kept secret in the world. October has come to be known almost universally as breast cancer awareness month. Pink rivals orange and black as the principal color of the season. The familiar ribbon shows up alongside jack o-lanterns, ghosts, and witches—in fact, not a few ghosts sport pink ribbons these days, and I’m sure some pumpkins get ribbons carved into their shells. And there are races. People all over the country gather on designated days in this month to run or walk (or both), usually a distance of five kilometers, as a means of raising funds and showing support for breast cancer research and care provision, and as a way of paying tribute to everyone, past and present, who has dealt with breast cancer. From where did all of this come?


Founder Nancy G. Brinker (right) with her sister
and inspiration, Susan G. Komen.

Her name is now famous, although during her lifetime few people other than family and friends knew Susan Goodman, who added Komen to her name when she married her school sweetheart, Stan. By all accounts, she was bright, vibrant, outgoing, full of life. But at just 33 years of age, Susan Komen developed breast cancer, sadly a rather aggressive form of the disease, responsible for taking her life only three years later despite many far-ranging efforts exerted at several treatment centers. Susan had great compassion for other persons battling cancer in an era only beginning to realize effective forms of treatment—the early 1980s was still the infancy of breast cancer medicine, lacking many of tools at our current disposal. Before her death, Susan and her sister, Nancy Goodman Brinker, discussed ways to improve this difficult situation. Getting the message out, raising support for research efforts, and building on the growing national awareness regarding breast cancer all seemed to point a way forward.

Nancy Brinker seized on the popular craze for jogging that had sprung up in the 1970s and expanded in the 1980s. She organized a five-kilometer race in Dallas in 1983, a fundraising event dubbed the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. She clearly touched a responsive nerve, as enthusiasm for the concept grew rapidly and spread nationwide. Pink became the emblematic color; clever, colorful signs and costumes, and mutual encouragement of breast cancer survivors and their caregivers, family, and friends formed essential aspects of this culture. Mrs. Brinker, through the foundation named for her sister, formed alliances with sports, entertainment, and business corporations. Because of all this, efforts against breast cancer are in the front rank of oncology concerns, receiving by far the bulk of the attention and the funds directed against any malignant disease.

Although the organization has dealt with controversy over its years, there can be little doubt that Susan Komen’s legacy has contributed mightily to the human war on breast cancer. We come together each October not just to honor her memory but the memory of every woman and man afflicted by breast cancer, and to keep pressing toward the goal of finding and applying curative treatment for this horrible, life-stealing disease. I believe she would be glad for the many gains made over the past forty years. However, she would encourage us to continue to run the race in order to get the ultimate prize.
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