Fulfilling a pink promise

Nancy G. Brinker turns a pledge to her dying sister into an international quest to save other women.

Nancy Brinker 311 (photo credit: Bloomberg)
Nancy Brinker 311
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
More a good cause than a good read, Promise Me nonetheless carries a message that cannot fail to make an impact. Or more to the point, ignore it at your peril.
The subtitle “How a Sister’s Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer” by no means says it all.
The eponymous sister is Nancy G. Brinker. The title contains the words she hears from her older sibling and best friend Susan (Suzy) Goodman Komen as she lay dying in a cheerless hospital in 1980 at the age of 36. It was typical, it seems, of Suzy to be thinking of how to improve the chances and conditions of other women even as she was on her own deathbed. And it was characteristic, we gather, of Nancy to take that promise so seriously that 30 years later the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation has raised some $1.5 billion for scientific research and public awareness and decked the global village in pink ribbons. The annual Race for the Cure has become a feature in major cities across the world – there is one scheduled for October 28 in Jerusalem. And women openly talk about the deadly disease where once there was only a deadly silence.
Brinker’s unstinting advocacy last year earned her the highest award that can be conferred on a civilian in the US: Barack Obama granted her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
I don’t doubt that her true reward comes not from the honors but from knowing she is saving lives as she pledged.
To promote her goals, she uses all her experience in marketing; all the business savvy and contacts of her late (and ex-) husband, Texas restaurant magnate Norman Brinker; and her natural ability to network.
Her life story is interesting even without being used for promotion needs. Both Goodman sisters spent an apparently idyllic childhood in Peoria, Illinois, and made disastrous short-lived marriages before finding their soul mates. The ever-elegant, former homecoming queen and sometimes model, Suzy finds happiness as a stay-at-home mother to two children doing good deeds in the town where the girls grew up. That contentment is cut short with the diagnosis of breast cancer, the wrong care ordered by well-meaning but misinformed doctors, the indignities of hospitalization and three years of a torturous treatment.
Nancy, a high-powered working woman, who has a son by her first husband, meets and marries Dallas mogul Brinker – 16 years her senior – shortly after Suzy’s death. While she is in the early stages of the fight “to end breast cancer,” she receives the worst type of reminder of the genetic link and has to fight the disease that has been lurking in her body too (it also affected the sisters’ Aunt Rose whom they loved). As they approach their 12th anniversary, her husband, whom she openly adores, suffers a serious brain trauma in an accident while playing polo.
She sticks by him as he slowly regains his consciousness, power of speech and movement. But he then ends what she has considered the near perfect marriage, although he remains in close touch and an avid supporter of the SGK foundation. Not one to remain down for long, Brinker goes on to become the US ambassador in Hungary under the Bush administration and White House chief of protocol.
I should mention she achieves all this despite being hindered by dyslexia.
The cause is such a noble one that you have to forgive the book its faults. Brinker has to set the stage, as it were, so we are treated to a great deal of early memories – the recollections of the two sisters’ trip to Europe in their early 20s in 1965, for example, get bogged down in details of exactly what fashion item they bought where and the men the Goodman girls did and didn’t date.
Cowritten by Joni Rodgers, a New York Times journalist and herself a breast cancer survivor, the style is choppy, not just because it mixes memoir with medical history. You can almost tell in which bits Brinker – who would be the first to admit to being bossy – decided to use her own voice and which parts were written by a professional writer.
The book includes not only Brinker’s recollections but also a review of the treatment of breast cancer from ancient times to today (and I doubt anyone can read the section on a mastectomy carried out without anesthetic and not squirm). There is a time line of the major developments in detection and treatment of the disease. Brinker remains a firm supporter of women checking their own breasts and being informed enough to be prepared to question doctors: “I believe knowledge is power, but I don’t deny that ignorance is bliss. The trouble with bliss, however, is that it’s often short-lived.”
There are short, inspiring profiles of women from all walks of life, all over the world who are breast cancer survivors, and an honorable mention to those men who also fall prey to the terrible disease.
And it contains a lesson in public information campaigns and cause-marketing, a field Brinker pioneered, as well as a detailed appendix of resources.
The photos show the two sisters and their families radiating an inner and outer beauty. There is also non-gratuitous name-dropping: Laura Bush, a close friend and health advocacy supporter, Betty Ford, the pope and the Dalai Lama are all included.
The result is moving, informative and occasionally infuriating. Brinker is clearly a “hyper” type who has harnessed her energy and channeled it in a positive direction: “What can I say? As long as women are dying of breast cancer, we’re going to keep talking about it, and this is our style. It was Suzy’s style and this is my tribute to her.”
Behind both sisters, not so incidentally, is a mother who took doing good deeds in the community to extremes even before the days when the phrase tikkun olam (fixing the world) became a buzzword. Brinker, proud of her Jewishness, declares the overriding principle drilled into her by her parents was: “Do the right thing.” One of the most touching moments in the book is when Brinker wonders how her mother obtained marijuana to ease Suzy’s pain, taping the plastic bags to her legs before she boarded the plane to visit her dying daughter. Another poignant point comes when Brinker deliberates pushing her sister under a bus as they leave the hospital, so great is Suzy’s suffering.
We all know someone who has been struck by breast cancer. Nancy Brinker dedicates her book – and her work – to her sibling. I dedicate this review to my mother’s oldest sister, Rebecca Schuleberg, my beloved Aunt Beck, who continues to be a positive presence in my life more than a decade after her death.
You don’t have to buy this book (although the majority of the royalties are being directed to the SGK foundation). You don’t even have to read this book. But promise me that if you’ve read this review, you won’t just make a mental note to get a checkup, you’ll make an appointment. And wear that pink ribbon with pride.