2005 Mary Woodard Lasker Public Service Award

Public awareness of cancer

The 2005 Mary Woodard Lasker Award for Public Service honors an advocate who has created one of the world's great foundations devoted to curing breast cancer and dramatically increased public awareness about this devastating disease. In fulfilling a promise to her dying sister, Nancy Brinker has improved the plight of breast-cancer patients across the globe. Her work has stripped the cloak of shame and secrecy from an illness that strikes more than a million people annually. The organization she built, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, boasts more than 75,000 volunteers and has raised more than $740 million to support breast-cancer research, education, screening, and treatment. Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush have recognized Brinker's acumen and achievements, appointing her to various cancer advisory boards and committees. In 2001, President Bush appointed her to serve as US Ambassador to the Republic of Hungary, where she continued her breast-cancer and women's health advocacy abroad. By personal example, Brinker has demonstrated a successful encounter with breast cancer and by speaking out in various forums, she has nurtured the grassroots breast-cancer advocacy movement that she launched.

Brinker's sister, Suzy, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1977, when public knowledge about the illness barely existed, fear ran rampant, and medical options were few. Despite surgery, radiation treatments, and chemotherapy, her disease spread, killing her in 1980 when she was 36 years old. Before she died, she asked her sister to do something so that others would not suffer as she had. After Suzy's death, Brinker took up the crusade to eradicate breast cancer as a life-threatening disease.

Brinker started on her mission with a few close friends and some vague ideas. In the early 1980s, no one talked about breast cancer at cocktail parties, much less in public. People, especially potential corporate donors, hesitated to help. This environment of dread made raising money difficult and fed the isolation and desperation that individuals felt when confronting the scourge. Brinker wanted to make a cultural and a clinical change, bringing the disease into the open, sparking research, and improving patient care. She started the organization in 1982 with $200 and a shoebox filled with names of people who might help in some way.

Now, 23 years later, the Susan G. Komen Foundation has grown into an international organization as well as the nation's largest private funder of breast-cancer research and community outreach programs. It has awarded more than 1100 grants totaling more than $180 million for breast-cancer research and has also funded community-based screening, treatment, and education programs for the medically underserved, focusing on programs that address unmet breast health needs of local communities. It supports activities in 23 countries, funds research grants in eight countries, and has developed educational materials in 14 languages. The organization hosts online support groups and a help line to answer questions, boost morale, and inform people about local resources.

Brinker conceived of the Race for the Cure® Series, which fosters awareness about breast cancer and raises money to combat the disease. This event celebrates breast cancer survivors and empowers women to take charge of their breast health. The race's participants have grown in number from 800 at the kick-off event in 1983 to an estimated 1.4 million in 2004.

Since her sister's death, Nancy Brinker not only has established a worldwide source of information, support, and funding, but has faced her own breast cancer diagnosis (in 1984). With determination to provide an example of survivorship by fully participating in her own treatment decisions, she fought the disease and served as a symbol to many who have grappled with the realities of breast cancer. As a survivor, she has used her own experience to enhance understanding of breast cancer, and has contributed immeasurably to the international grassroots effort to obliterate the disease.

In addition to her work at the Foundation, she has spoken out about the importance of patients' rights and medical advances in the area of breast cancer research and treatment and has advocated women's health issues in congressional hearings. She has taken leadership roles in numerous private and public organizations and has testified before the United States Democratic Policy Committee's Congressional Breast Cancer Forum. She has received numerous awards from a wide range of organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Nancy Brinker transformed an issue that was not mentioned in polite conversation into an international discussion. The loss of her sister, compounded by her own breast cancer diagnosis, instilled her with powerful knowledge and motivation. She created an advocacy movement where none existed before, building a world-class foundation and spawning a global effort aimed at wiping out this ruinous illness.

by Evelyn Strauss

Award presentation by Daniel Koshland, Jr.

It is a pleasure to announce the 2005 winner of the Lasker Public Service Award. The members of the selection committee usually complain to me that the enormous range covered by this award makes it very difficult to select the awardee. In the past few years alone we have given the award to former Congressman John Porter for his great public government role in supporting science and medical research, to Christopher Reeve for his heroic response to a terrible accident and his great advocacy of medical research to help victims like himself, to Robert Foege for his pioneering leadership in eradicating the natural origin of the disease smallpox, and to the New York Times for its journalistic highlights on science and medical research.

The committee usually has contentious arguments related to the candidates' differences, some people claiming that it is difficult to decide between 'apples and pears'. This is true, but this is why the membership of our panel consists of brilliant individuals, including Bruce Alberts, former president of the National Academy of Sciences; Harvey Fineberg, president of the National Institute of Medicine; Barbara Culliton, senior journalist and former editor of Nature Medicine; Enriqueta Bond, president of Burroughs Welcome Fund; Mrs. David Mahoney, Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute; and Alfred Sommer, dean of the School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. It is interesting to note that this year, in spite of an enormous range of candidates, we came very quickly to our unanimous choice, Nancy Brinker.

In 1982, Nancy Brinker's sister, Susan G. Komen, died of breast cancer. It is hard for us to believe now, but at that time breast cancer was only spoken of in whispers and rarely in public. Its usual course involved mutilating surgery. Susan Komen pleaded with her sister to do something so other women might be saved from this horrible and lonely illness. Nancy Brinker had never been in politics, never in fundraising, never in big organizational efforts, and was a little afraid of them. Nevertheless, she remembered the words of a distinguished rabbi — "If not me, who? If not now, when?" — and she got to work. As a result, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation has raised more than $740 million to support cancer research, education, screening, and treatment; it has given away more than $144 million in grants to leading scientists; its annual Race for the Cure is participated in by hundreds of thousands of runners; breast cancer is understood by every informed reader of newspapers to be one of the leading causes of death in women, and there are several drugs that are close to, but not quite yet, cures.

For this magnificent achievement that would be Herculean for an experienced professional, we have to thank the indomitable heart and the great altruism of one incredible human being — Nancy Brinker, our 2005 Awardee of the Mary Woodard Lasker Award in Public Service.

Nancy G. Brinker

Acceptance remarks, 2005 Lasker Awards Ceremony

Nature Medicine Essay 


Thank you all for this tremendous honor, which is as gratifying as it is humbling.

Late in her life, Mary Lasker was asked by a reporter — if she had to start all over again, whether she would consider a career as a scientist. "Oh no!" she replied, "I couldn't cut up a frog! And I certainly couldn't perform surgery! Nobody would have me in their laboratory for five minutes!"

I am not a scientist. I am not a researcher. I am not a clinician. But for more than two decades, I have been privileged to walk in your company… as an advocate for your work and for the patients whose lives you save. And today, I thank the entire Lasker Foundation, the board, and all you, for the recognition and validation that comes with this honor.

In my life, I have been blessed to serve in many capacities with many titles. But none — none — compare with the honor of being named a recipient of an award graced with the name Mary Lasker.

As children growing up in Peoria, Illinois, my sister Suzy and I knew about Mary Lasker — as a magazine once called her — "the fairy godmother of medical research."

As a college student in the early 1970s, I watched in awe as she persuaded the President and Congress to declare a national war on cancer.

And as the founder of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, I will never forget meeting her for the first time — when our friend Deeda Blair took me to her apartment here in New York.

On that day I came face to face with my personal hero. Mary Lasker was what I and so many other advocates strove to be — in the words of Jonas Salk — "a matchmaker between science and society."

If I can leave you with one message in my brief time with you it is this: No disease is cured in a laboratory alone. Society looks to science to help alleviate suffering. And science looks to society for the funding and public support that make new discoveries, drugs and treatments possible.

I can think of no better way to honor the life and legacy of Mary Lasker, or the spirit of this award, than to rededicate ourselves to the mission and message of her life.

Let us ensure that science continues to reach out and speak clearly to the American people who are called upon to support cutting-edge research.

Let us continue to build a true culture of awareness so that society values research as the indispensable down payment on future discoveries and cures.

And let us, like Mary Lasker, teach and inspire the next generation of advocates so that there will always be loving matchmakers between society and science.