Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Nancy G. Brinker of The Promise Fund of Florida Is Helping To Change Our World
Don’t ever lose your focus. Don’t ever lose focus on your original mission. Sometimes you will grow too fast and the original impact you were striving for may be lost in expansion. If you ever forget your original mission, you will start to forget and lose the passion behind why you started.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nancy G. Brinker.
A three-time Ambassador and New York Times best-selling author, Nancy G. Brinker is regarded as the leader of the global breast cancer movement.
In 2009, President Barack Obama honored Brinker with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for her work; the same year, she was named Goodwill Ambassador for Cancer Control for the United Nations’ World Health Organization, where she continues her mission to put cancer control at the top of the world health agenda.
From 2001–2003, Brinker served as U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Hungary, and she served as U.S. Chief of Protocol from 2007–2009.
In 2018, Brinker spearheaded creation of the Promise Fund of Florida, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to improve the outcomes and reduce deaths from breast and cervical cancers in Palm Beach County, where 80,000 women reside with no insurance and no medical home.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
It all began with a promise. In 1980 I had to watch my selfless, courageous, and brilliant sister Susan lose her battle with breast cancer at the age of 36. Before she passed, she made me promise her two things: 1) That I would find a cure to this disease, and 2) that all women would have access to the resources needed to fight women’s cancers. Over 40 years later — and after founding and building Susan G. Komen for the Cure and raising 3 billion dollars — I knew it was time to start fulfilling the second promise I made to Suzy: Helping women access lifesaving care. In 2018, I came across a study that indicated that my home state of Florida ranked LAST in the nation for its share of nonelderly women with health insurance. After doing more research, I discovered that my own county, Palm Beach County, had some of the worst health disparities for women, especially women with cancer. This was it. This was how I was going to fulfill my second promise to my beloved sister: I was going to fundamentally change the healthcare system, starting with the one in my own backyard.
I called up two of my closest friends, Julie Fisher-Cummings and Laurie Silvers, who have also dedicated their lives to working to improve the quality of life for men and women of all socioeconomic backgrounds and in many different areas of need. They also couldn’t believe what was happening to women with breast and cervical cancer in our own community. So together, we formed the Promise Fund of Florida.
Now this organization may not have my sister’s name, but it does have her fiery spirit. I can feel her pushing me every day to fight for these women who cannot get cancer care. I will never forget when I was sitting with Suzy in the hospital, and we looked out into the waiting room and saw a sea of women helplessly pleading for care. She turned to me and said, “Where a woman lives shouldn’t determine whether she lives.” I am reminded of these words every day as I work to help all women prevent and fight breast and cervical cancer. Every woman deserves lifesaving care, and the Promise Fund won’t rest until no woman dies from late-stage breast or cervical cancer.
I was once asked, “What would Suzy say about the work you are doing with the Promise Fund?” And I responded, “She would tell me to hurry up and get it done.” I know Suzy is cheering me on, and she would be so proud of all the work we have done and will continue to do for women.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I was lucky to have been exposed to a lot of people in my life that I never thought I would have the privilege to meet. As the U.S. Chief of Protocol, I got to interact and learn from some of the most knowledgeable and interesting people in the world. From the Pope to prime ministers: Everyone I met shared their story with me, and I took away a lesson with every encounter. It was refreshing to see that it is almost unanimously agreed upon from a multitude of cultures that a healthy mother creates a healthy family.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The first-ever Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure was in 1983. No one thought this event would be successful, and I got nervous that no one would show up. I started to tell everyone to bring their dogs so we would appear to have filled up the street more. To everyone’s surprise, 800 participants showed up for the very first Race for the Cure in Dallas, Texas, and many of them did bring their dogs. I learned to never doubt my gut instinct — and to always carry around a few extra doggy bags on race day.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
We are going to make an impact all over the world because we are spearheading a movement by applying what we have learned after years of funding cancer research. Currently, we are challenging dipartites and finding the best model to treat people in need. We have the proof that early detection and screening saves lives. However, women without adequate insurance or a medical home are left to seek help as best they can. This means delays in treatment and — at worst — no treatment at all. Many women drop out after being diagnosed: They are walking around with the cancer advancing, unable to get the help they need. Therefore, we created the Promise Fund Patient Navigator Network to provide culturally competent, bilingual patient navigation that evaluates each participant’s social determinants of health to remove barriers, promote health equity and social justice, and guide to essential breast and cervical health services. The Promise Fund of Florida partners with local community-based organizations to fund navigators who connect at-risk individuals with health care providers for breast and cervical health screenings and services.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
At 58, Marie was diagnosed with breast cancer; however, she didn’t receive any treatment because she had difficulty accessing resources. Can you imagine knowing that you have cancer for three years and not being able to obtain treatment? Thankfully, Marie found out about the Promise Fund through a local Haitian radio station.
The Promise Fund connected her with Sheena, a Promise Fund Patient Navigator. Marie told Sheena in her native language, Haitian Creole, that her breast lump was getting bigger and that she was in a lot of pain. Sheena listened, enrolled her on a health insurance plan, and immediately assisted her in making necessary medical appointments. Within days, Sheena was able to obtain an oncology appointment for Marie.
Within three weeks of connecting with Sheena, Marie received a pet scan, MRI, and had a port placement for administration of chemotherapy. Marie is currently receiving chemotherapy and has a good prognosis. Marie’s oncologist is amazed at how fast and well she is responding to treatment.
In partnering with women such as Sheena, the Promise Fund helps to navigate the complexities of the health care system for women with breast and cervical cancer, ensuring health equality and better outcomes. Diseases that are 99 and 95 percent curable shouldn’t be resulting in so many deaths.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- The community’s public and private sectors can come together to help uninsured and underinsured women and families by making everyone aware of the current organizations and facilities already in place to help underserved women receive healthcare. For example, the Promise Fund helped to establish a women’s health center at FoundCare, a federally qualified healthcare center in West Palm Beach, that includes 3D mammography and ultrasound equipment graciously donated by medical technology leader Hologic; that partnership led to screening rates jumping from 10 percent to 57 percent.
- Society can work towards changing the stigma around uninsured patients and focus on becoming more inclusive and healthier.
- Politicians can allocate more funding to nonprofit organizations like the Promise Fund that help address health disparities.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is making sure that what you see can also be seen by others. A leader must be brave and committed and get up and keep going — even when it is hard. If you don’t fail and show others how to fail, you will never be a good leader. I have worked to eliminate deaths from breast and cervical cancer for more than 40 years. Over these 40 years, I have felt so close and so far from achieving this goal, but I knew that I had millions of women counting on me to fight for them. I will continue to lead the fight in ending deaths from breast and cervical cancer until no more women die from these diseases.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Don’t ever lose your focus. Don’t ever lose focus on your original mission. Sometimes you will grow too fast and the original impact you were striving for may be lost in expansion. If you ever forget your original mission, you will start to forget and lose the passion behind why you started.
- Be curious, see who is doing what you are trying to accomplish better and what you can learn from them. Always be learning, the moment you stop trying to improve is the start of your downfall.
- Listen, even when it’s hard. Humility is a very important skill. Listen to criticisms and truly take them to heart. You have to accept early on that you probably aren’t the best at what you are doing and that there is always room to grow.
- Humor is one of the best skills you can have. Laugh at your failures and bad days. If you can’t find any humor in your mistakes, you will lose your spark.
- Never give up on your dream. My dream was to make my sister’s name mean something. Countless people told me I was crazy for attempting what I did and that it could never be done. But here I am, as the founder of one of the world’s largest breast cancer organizations, Susan G. Komen, named of course after my only sister. Susan G. Komen now means hope, perseverance, and courage to so many families all over the world. This was not an easy feat, but one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
My new organization, the Promise Fund of Florida, has created a model that helps women overcome barriers to breast and cervical cancer care. I hope we can inspire communities all over the nation to take our model and start replicating it within their own neighborhoods. If every woman had access to a Promise Fund, there would be no more deaths from breast and cervical cancer.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
As my late husband Norman Brinker used to say, “Work like play and play like hell.” This quote reminds me every day to work extremely hard, but to never forget to have fun along the way.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.
I would love to have a private lunch with Queen Elizabeth II, to talk to her about her long life of service, along with her greatest victories and mistakes. She has lived through so many historic moments and has always carried herself with dignity and grace (I would like to know the secret to that).
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow me personally here:
And the Promise Fund of Florida here:
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Nancy G Brinker of The Promise Fund of Florida Is Helping To Change was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.