By: Susan G. Komen
I’m often called the longest-running volunteer at Susan G. Komen. I was recruited to the cause in 1982, two years after my Aunt Suzy died of breast cancer. My mother, Nancy Brinker, promised Suzy to do everything she could to end the disease. That promise led to the very first meetings of the Susan G. Komen organization, in our living room in Dallas, with a small but very dedicated group of women, and me.
Eric Brinker, Peoria, IL – Co-survivor, Advocate
“Breast cancer didn’t, and still doesn’t, care if you’re rich, poor, young, old, male or female. It crosses all borders, religions, nationalities, ethnicities, lifestyles and sexual orientations.”
“I’m pleased that we can be of service to the LGBT community, just as I’m proud of all that Komen does to help the women and men who need us. My great hope, as we go through National Breast Cancer Awareness Month is that all women and men, gay or not, get the education, support and help that they need.”
From left: Eric Brinker, Ellie Goodman (mother of Suzy Komen and Nancy Brinker and grandmother of Eric Brinker), President Obama, Nancy Brinker (recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom), and Mrs. Obama.
Even at the young age of seven, I was able to follow the discussion of the ladies in the living room. They worried that women wouldn’t want to talk about the disease, or be identified as breast cancer survivors. At the time, even in 1982, we didn’t talk about cancer very much, and especially not breast cancer. I felt embarrassed that my mom was talking so openly about this and worried about what my friends would think. It’s almost incomprehensible today, but women felt a shame and stigma around breast cancer – a shame and stigma that my mother and our volunteers wanted to end. But they wanted women to know that it was OK to talk about breast cancer; OK to take steps to reduce their risk, and OK to be identified as a woman who’d been diagnosed with this disease.
Eric Brinker attends a “pink” basketball game at his alma mater Bradley University, in Peoria.
And they wanted that for all people. Breast cancer didn’t, and still doesn’t, care if you’re rich, poor, young, old, male or female. It crosses all borders, religions, nationalities, ethnicities, lifestyles and sexual orientations. My mother wanted to be sure that we reached out to all of them, because her promise to Suzy was really our promise to all women and men who face the disease. As a gay man, I’m especially proud that our organization understood and addressed the special needs of a group of people who were also just finding their voices in the 1980s – the gay and lesbian community.
We invested more than $1.2 million into research to help understand why lesbian women have a higher risk of breast cancer. Working with organizations like the Mautner Group and the National LGBT Cancer Network, we learned some important things. First, that the higher risk of breast cancer in this group goes not to sexual orientation, but to risk factors that tend to be more common in these women, for example, never having children or having them later in life. Alcoholism and obesity levels tend to be higher in the lesbian community. Both are known risk factors for this disease.
Armed with this information, Komen and our Affiliates have funded programs across the country designed to educate the LGBT community about breast cancer risk, and more importantly, to provide tools and programs to access and navigate the healthcare system. Current examples include the Lesbian Breast Cancer project through the a partnership with the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in New York City (with expanded outreach to Latina and African American women), the Lesbian Health Initiative of Houston; the Breast Related Advocacy (BRA) Task Force in Utah, the ARROW Breast Health Education, Training and Support program for women in south Florida, and the Breast Self-Awareness Peer Education Project in Chicago, where our Chicagoland Affiliate partnered with Howard Brown Health Center to provide funding.Very importantly, we learned that many in the gay community were and are mistrustful of the medical community, and avoid seeing healthcare providers for fear of discrimination over their orientation. Some had actually experienced that discrimination, and as a result, stayed away from routine health screenings.
I’m pleased that we can be of service to the LGBT community, just as I’m proud of all that Komen does to help the women and men who need us. My great hope, as we go through National Breast Cancer Awareness Month is that all women and men, gay or not, get the education, support and help that they need.
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