Nancy Brinker Biography

Founder of Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation

Nancy Brinker

Born December 6, 1946, in Peoria, IL; daughter of Marvin (a commercial real-estate developer) and Eleanor (a homemaker; maiden name, Newman) Goodman; married Robert Leitstein (divorced); married Norman E. Brinker (a restaurant chain founder/owner), 1981; children: Eric (from first marriage). Education : University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, B.A., 1968.

Addresses: Home —Dallas, TX. Office —Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, 5005 LBJ Freeway, Ste. 250, Dallas, TX 75244. Website —


Member of the executive training program, Neiman Marcus, Dallas, TX, 1968–72; talk-show host, WRR-AM, Dallas, 1973–75; director of public relations, Hyatt Regency Hotel, Dallas, 1977–78; account executive, Bozell & Jacobs Public Relations, 1978–80; founder and member of board of directors, Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, 1982–; U.S. ambassador to Hungary, 2001–03.

Member: Board of directors, Baylor University Medical Center Foundation, 1983; advisory board, Cystic Fibrosis Board, 1985; National Cancer Advisory Board, 1986–; Dallas Assembly, 1986; advisory board, National Coalition of Cancer Survivorship, 1987; President's Cancer Panel, 1992; International Women's Forum; National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations; American Cancer Society; Texas Women's Alliance; University of Illinois Alumni Association.

Awards: Lizette H. Sarnoff Volunteer Award, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Yeshiva University; Ladies' Home Journal 's Top Ten Champions of Women's Health Award; Ladies' Home Journal 's 100 Most Important Women of the 20th Century; Biography magazine's 25 Most Powerful Women in America; Peralta Cancer Research Institute's Humanitarian Award, 1985; Maura Award, Women Helping Women, 1986; Dallas Historical Society Award, 1986; Ultra magazine's Humanitarian Award, 1987; award from the Distinguished Women of Northwood Institute, 1987; President's Volunteer Action Award Citation, 1987; Marie Lombardi Humanitarian Award, 1988; Alpha Epsilon Phi's National Community Service Award, 1989; Gib Lewis Award for Excellence in Cancer Control, 1989; inducted into the Texas Women's Hall of Fame, 1989; Society of Surgical Oncology's James Ewing Layman Award, 1994; Salomon Smith Barney Extraordinary Achievement Award, 1998; National Caring Award, 1999; Sisters Network Lifetime Achievement Award, 2001; St. Louis University Sword of Ignatius Loyola Award, 2001; Centers for Disease Control Champions of Excellence Award, 2001; Global Conference Institute's Healthcare Humanitarian Award, 2001; American Society of Clinical Oncology's Special Recognition Award, 2001; Toastmasters International Top Five Speakers for 2001 Award; National Association of Broadcasters Educational Foundation's Service to America Leadership Award, 2004; Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation's Mary Woodard Lasker Award for Public Service, 2005; Research! America Advocacy Award, 2005.


After her 36-year-old sister died of breast cancer in 1980, Nancy Brinker founded the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation in her honor. Its mission is bold: eradicate the disease by improving research, screening, education, and treatment. Since its inception in 1982, the organization has grown into a global network of volunteers who raise money and awareness through local affiliates and by sponsoring Komen Race for the Cure events. The first Race for the Cure, held in Dallas, Texas, in 1983, drew 800 participants; within 20 years, the organization was sponsoring more than 100 races annually across the globe, drawing more than one million participants. The races raise money, but also deliver a message of support to survivors.

Over the years, the organization has raised $750 million, making it one of the largest cancer charities in the world. "There is hardly an advance in the science of breast cancer over the past 20 years that hasn't been touched by a Komen grant," Brinker told BusinessWeek 's Catherine Arnst. "That's what I'm most proud of."

Born on December 6, 1946, Brinker grew up alongside her sister, Susan, in Peoria, Illinois, which was also her birthplace. Their father, Marvin Goodman, was a real-estate developer and their mother, Eleanor, was a homemaker who lived by the rule of always helping those less fortunate. The sisters, raised in the Jewish faith, caught the community service bug early on. When Brinker was six and Komen was nine, they organized a variety show to raise funds in the battle against polio. "We had little friends who had polio and it was the great threat of our childhood and we were very sympathetic to it," Brinker recalled to the Peoria Journal Star .

After high school, Brinker attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and honed her people skills as a member of the student senate and as president of her sorority. She graduated in 1968 and began her business and marketing career in Dallas, Texas, at Neiman Marcus, where she worked as an assistant couture buyer. Other public relations jobs followed. Komen stayed in Peoria and modeled. Both sisters married and started families yet remained connected through daily telephone checkins. During one of their conversations in the late 1970s, Komen told Brinker she had found a lump in her breast. Brinker flew to Peoria to be with her sister as she began seeking treatment. Komen underwent nine operations, as well as chemotherapy and radiation, only to die three years after her diagnosis. During the ordeal, Brinker made countless trips between Dallas and Peoria to be with her sister, though at the time Brinker, herself, was going through a divorce and had a young son to care for.

As Komen lay on her deathbed, she asked Brinker to do something so other women would not suffer her fate. Shortly after Komen's death, Brinker met multi-millionaire Norman Brinker, founder of the Steak and Ale, Bennigan's, and Chili's restaurant chains. He identified with Brinker's devastation and understood her motivation to do something about it. His first wife, 1950's tennis star Maureen Connolly, had died of ovarian cancer in her 30s. Within months of meeting, they wed. Their marriage afforded Brinker the financial freedom to leave her job and begin working to fulfill her promise to her sister.

Armed with $200, a typewriter, and a list of names, Brinker gathered about 20 friends in her Dallas living room in 1982 and the foundation was born. To raise public awareness, the foundation needed money, so the women organized a polo tournament as their first event. The next year, the foundation invited former first lady and breast cancer survivor Betty Ford to its fund-raising event and nearly 700 people showed up. The next year, the foundation launched the first Race for the Cure. By 1984, the foundation had raised enough money to begin awarding grants for research and education.

Around this time, Brinker was beginning to feel triumphant when she detected a lump in her breast, which turned out to be cancerous. She took an aggressive approach to her treatment. According to the Oregonian 's Leslie Barker, Brinker, upon learning of her diagnosis, screamed at her doctor: "I want them both off today! Get them off me!" Aside from a mastectomy, Brinker also underwent several rounds of chemotherapy and survived, emerging from the ordeal weakened, bald, and determined to help others win the battle. Brinker wrote about her journey in a book, The Race is Run One Step at a Time . Published in 1990, the book also offers advice on seeking healthcare and treatment for the disease.

When Brinker first started the organization, she found people hesitant to talk about the disease—especially male CEOs. Her determination, coupled with her public relations background, eventually helped the organization make headway. In 1986, U.S. President Ronald Reagan took notice and appointed Brinker to the National Cancer Advisory Board. Several years later, U.S. President George H.W. Bush appointed her to the three-member President's Cancer Panel and in 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush nominated her to serve as ambassador to Hungary. In this capacity, she helped establish Hungary's "Bridge of Health Alliance," a coalition of civilian groups that work together to raise awareness and funds for breast cancer research. At the time, breast cancer was the leading cause of death for Hungarian women. By 2005, it was the third-leading cause of death because early detection was saving lives.

Brinker's ultimate goal is to eradicate breast cancer; however, she would be satisfied if breast cancer lost its status as a killer and simply became a "manageable" disease. To aid in this effort, Brinker has guided the organization in raising more than $750 million dollars, making it a leader in the fight against the disease. Her husband, Norman Brinker, is not surprised by her success. "She's the world's champion networker. The best I've ever seen," he told the Washington Post 's Roxanne Roberts.

Part of Brinker's success comes from her charming, yet aggressive, never-take-no-for-an-answer bulldozing approach to life. The approach brings success, but also raises eyebrows. As society editor Alan Peppard of the Dallas Morning News remarked to the Washington Post , "Nancy is worshiped by some people. The flip side of that coin is that she is seen—by friends and enemies alike—as far too ambitious and self-absorbed. Whether or not that is the case, it pales in comparison with the phenomenal success she's had in promoting the cause of breast cancer."

Selected writings

        The Race is Run One Step at a Time
       (revised edition), Summit Publishing Group, 1995.



Business Week , October 17, 2005, p. 24.

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), August 30, 1990, p. B4.

Washington Post , June 12, 1991, p. F1.


"Embassy News: U.S. Supports Breast Cancer Awareness and Research in Hungary," U.S. Embassy Budapest, (August 6, 2006).

"Nancy Brinker: She's Racing Toward a Cure," Peoria Journal Star , (June 26, 2006).

"Nancy Brinker," Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foudation, (June 26, 2006).

"Nancy Goodman Brinker," U.S. Department of State, (June 26, 2006).

"Running the Race," Peoria Journal Star , (June 26, 2006).

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