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Q & A with Nancy Brinker

Ambassador Nancy Brinker, founder and CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, will receive an honorary degree from Duke at its commencement exercises on Sunday, May 13. Brinker founded Susan G. Komen for the Cure after promising her dying sister that she would do everything she could to end breast cancer, and since then the foundation has raised almost $2 billion for research, advocacy and global programs for women in more than 50 countries. Susan G. Komen for the Cure came under attack in February after pulling funding for breast cancer screenings from Planned Parenthood, allegedly caused by political motives. After massive public backlash, especially through social media, Brinker apologized to the organization and restored the funding. Brinker discussed her honorary degree from Duke, the power of social media and how far breast cancer research has come.

The Chronicle: How do you feel about receiving an honorary degree from Duke? What does it mean to you?

Nancy Brinker: This has a very special meaning for me because so much of extraordinary research into breast cancer is being done at Duke – research that Susan G. Komen has funded for many, many years. It’s a bit like coming home to me: we work very closely with the top researchers in breast cancer here, and the people of North Carolina have been so generous in terms of supporting the work of our local Affiliates across the state. I’m very pleased to accept this honor on behalf of the Komen organization and all of the people who care so much about this mission.

TC: When and how did you find out that you would receive an honorary degree?

NB: I received a very gracious invitation a few months ago and was humbled and honored to be considered for such a prestigious degree.

TC: What is the next step for the Komen Foundation? What is the next step for you individually?

NB: When I promised my sister, Suzy, that I would do everything I could to end breast cancer, I was willing to spend the rest of my life doing that. Little did I know that I actually would spend the better part of my life in ending this disease. I intend to stay with this work until we’re no longer necessary, and that means finding the cures and making sure that every woman and man has access to treatment.

TC: How do you balance the demands of the some of the Foundation's supporters' political goals with the overall goal of fighting for breast cancer patients?

NB: Our public policy agenda is quite simple: we are “pro-cure.” We have helped save more than $100 million from budget cuts in government programs that screen poor women. We’ve invested more than $1.3 billion of our own funds into treatment and screening programs to fill the healthcare gaps, especially for low-income and uninsured women.

TC: What role does politics play in charity work? How can causes like the Komen Foundation work to bridge political divides?

NB: Organizations like Komen must stay focused on their missions, which in Komen’s case is funding research for breast cancer cures and taking care of women and men facing this disease.

TC: What role did responses on social media play in the Komen leadership changing their position on Planned Parenthood?

NB: We learned, and not just from social media, that people do care very deeply about issues like access to healthcare for vulnerable populations. They will speak up, and an organization like ours is wise to listen. We’ve always taken care of low-income and uninsured women through our community funding, and we would never have abandoned those women. Nevertheless, I’ve personally apologized for our decision and the misunderstanding that arose from it. And we are now moving forward with the work that we’ve done for three decades: funding research and taking care of people facing breast cancer.

TC: What major initiatives are you working on now? Where do you hope to take the state of breast cancer medicine in the next five years?

NB: I’m very excited about prevention research – the search to find vaccines or environmental links that will actually help prevent breast cancer all together. On the other end of the spectrum, we are very close to more personalized and effective treatments for women with the most lethal forms of this disease. The next 5-10 years are going to be very productive ones in cancer research as we gain a better understanding of how cancer forms, how it spreads, and how to effectively stop it.

TC: How far has breast cancer treatment come since you started the Komen organization.

NB: We’re light years ahead of where we were just one generation ago. We have five-year survival rates in the United States of 99 percent for early stage breast cancers. That number was 74 percent when I started. Breast cancer death rates have dropped by more than 30 percent in just the past 20 years. That’s been the result of a combination of research, awareness, screening and public health outreach, and many, many women are alive today who most certainly would have died when we began our work.