September 13, 2010
Posted: 12:17 PM ET
Thirty years ago, I held my sister’s hand in the back of the family car and promised her that I would do everything I could to end the disease that killed her not long after. It was the last time I would see Suzy alive and I marveled that even in her weakened state – painfully thin from the breast cancer treatments that were no longer working, wig askew – she was thinking of other women who went through what she did, and asking that it be stopped.
I promised Suzy that I would spend the rest of my life fulfilling that promise, although at the time, I really didn’t think it would take the rest of my life. Naively, I assumed that the answers were right there, they were simple, they were easy to implement – all that science and medicine needed was a little push. As I set out to start the organization that would bear my sister’s name – Susan G. Komen for the Cure – I thought that with a little work, a little publicity, we would have this breast cancer taken care of pretty quick.
I was wrong about that. It’s been, for 30 years, an incredible uphill battle, but like most things that are hard, well worth it. My new book, Promise Me, tells the story of doors slammed in our faces as we set out to do our work. It tells of editors unwilling to publish the words “breast cancer” in the paper, because “breast” was just so personal. It tells of the extraordinary stories of how the women who came before us endured the pain of this disease in ways I can’t even contemplate. And it tells the story of how far we’ve come with this disease in just a tiny sliver of world history – a mere 30 years – with incredible developments still to come.
My sister Suzy was the total package – smart, funny and pretty. Homecoming queen and girl about town, she was always involved in charities and helping people in our hometown of Peoria, Illinois. She was just 33 when she was diagnosed. She would endure a terrible three years before she died, at 36, leaving a husband, two young children, devastated parents, and me.
Had we known what we know now about breast cancer, I often postulate that her outcome might have been very different. But at that time, there were very few major breast cancer centers (Suzy relied to a great extent on her family doctor, as did many women of the time). There was no real funding to speak of – the government invested just $30 million to breast cancer research. We didn’t talk about this disease. Young women today look at me with blank stares when I tell them that there was a time when we didn’t call it cancer – we called it the Big C or a “long illness” – and how people would cross the street to avoid Suzy, afraid, perhaps, of catching her disease.
Today, of course, things are very different, thanks in huge part to the little cadre of women who sat in my Dallas living room and helped begin the work of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Today, the government funds $900 million to breast cancer research. Today, we’ve grown from a group of a few determined Dallas housewives to an organization millions strong in 50 countries around the world.
Today, thanks to the half-billion dollars in research that Komen alone has funded, we know so much more than we did 30 years ago. We know that breast cancer is not just one disease – it actually comes in several different forms. We know how mammograms and other screening tests can help us catch cancers early and how to treat many of them successfully. We know about genetics issues in breast cancer, and we are learning more every day about how to, yes, help women beat this disease. Fiver-year survival rates from early stage breast cancer, that is, cancer that hasn’t spread from the breast, have soared from74 percent when we started our work to 98 percent today in the U.S.
That’s a lot to accomplish in 30 years, made possible in large part by the work of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. And yet, a woman dies of breast cancer every 69 seconds. More than 1.3 million women will be diagnosed with it this year alone, all around the world. Almost half a million will die of it. So, every time I start feeling a little heartened by the progress we’ve made, my vision widens to the scope of the challenge ahead, and it makes me dig in even harder to get this work accomplished.
Our vision is to end breast cancer, because if you’re going to have a vision, it ought to be a big one. I mentioned the incredible progress in early stage cancer. Today, we also have more personalized treatments as opposed to the one-size-fits-all arsenal we had in 1980. We’re seeing many women living longer and productive lives even with advanced disease. We’re funding some promising work in prevention strategies – not conclusive yet, but close. We’re funding important work to find out how we might stop cancer in its tracks, before it spreads. I expect big breakthroughs in the next 10 to 15 years.
Most importantly, we have a level of awareness about breast cancer unparalleled in human history. We no longer cross the street to avoid women with cancer. We have hotlines, help lines, on-line communities and races that celebrate our survivors. Celebrities share their stories to help others. And women and men wear pink with pride, knowing that this color of the breast cancer movement is also the color of a world community fighting to end this disease.
Promise Me is about those triumphs and heartbreaks. I hope you enjoy it.
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