How Susan G. Komen became such a household name in breast cancer awareness

Susan G. Komen is one of the largest breast cancer organizations in the world. Since its founding in 1982, the nonprofit organization has invested more than $1 trillion in cancer research and more than $2 trillion in patient outreach, according to financial filings. The Foundation’s Race for the Cure is known as one of the largest breast cancer awareness events, and the iconic pink ribbon is synonymous with the cause.

However, the real Susan G. Komen was not a celebrity. He did not disclose his illness, which took his life in 1980 at the age of 36. In fact, after Komen’s death, his name became extremely famous.

Susan G. Komen was born Susan Goodman, and grew up in Peoria, Illinois. According to his sister, Nancy Goodman Brinker, he was well-liked; homecoming queen and caretaker of the older sisters. When Komen was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 33, she and her family experienced all the terror and uncertainty that comes with a life-threatening illness. Despite undergoing various treatment strategies, Komen died three years later.

It was Nancy Brinker who founded the organization in Komen’s honor. Brinker, who was married to restaurant mogul Norman Brinker until 2000, would become a Goodwill Ambassador for Cancer Control for the World Health Organization. President Barack Obama also awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.

In 1983, Brinker had the idea to capitalize on the jogging fad and organize a 5K race in Dallas as a fundraising event. The result was the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. The idea grew from there, becoming a multi-city event after a few years. This level of marketing knowledge was one of the reasons why the foundation became so popular so quickly. The spectacle of the races, with survivors and supporters dressed in pink, carrying signs and cheering each other on along the way, became an iconic part of the breast cancer movement.

A surge in breast cancer awareness in the 1980s also fueled Brinker’s charitable efforts. First Lady Betty Ford, wife of President Gerald Ford, had enlarged mammograms in 1974 after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Brinker herself was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1984.

Susan G. Komen continued to capitalize on the momentum of breast cancer awareness in the 1990s, as the ubiquitous pink ribbon rose in popularity and more companies began creating breast cancer awareness ties. By its 20th anniversary in 2002, the foundation had raised more than $400 million and assembled powerful corporate partners.

However, the foundation has also been controversial. In 2012, Susan G. Komen halted Planned Parenthood’s funding for testing, a move many saw as a politicization of the cause. Although the decision was reversed, it led to the resignation of several employees and damaged public perception. At the same time, Brinker – who stepped down as CEO – was criticized for his high six-figure salary as the foundation’s CEO. In 2016, the foundation drew further criticism after holding an annual fundraiser at presidential candidate Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club.

Since those events, the organization has struggled with losing public confidence, even though fundraising has seen a decline in recent years.

Despite the controversy, Komen’s Race for the Cure walks and runs remain wildly popular. This year, the More Than Pink Walk and Race for the Cure events will be organized in 40 US cities. And while not every pink ribbon or breast cancer walk is related to Susan G. Komen, the foundation’s impact is hard to forget.