Komen for the Cure founder earns Illinois’ top public service honor

Nancy Goodman Brinker Nancy Goodman Brinker, ’68 LAS, established Susan G. Komen for the Cure in honor of her sister, who died of breast cancer. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Brinker)

A promise to her dying sister, stricken with breast cancer, launched a 34-year-old crusade that has earned Nancy Goodman Brinker, ’68 LAS, a 2016 Order of Lincoln Award—Illinois’ highest honor for professional achievement and public service.

The promise, to end breast cancer, prompted Brinker to establish Dallas-based Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a non-profit organization named for her sister that has raised more than $1.9 billion for research, education and health services, making it the world’s largest breast cancer charity. Supported by 75,000 U.S. volunteers, 120 U.S. affiliates and three foreign affiliates, the organization has not only prompted new treatments for breast cancer, but improved quality of life for patients and long-term survivors of the disease.

Perhaps most importantly, Komen for the Cure brought breast cancer out of the closet, says Brinker, who notes, “The media wouldn’t even utter the word ‘breast’ in the early ‘80s.” Komen launched a national discourse on breast cancer, a phenomenon Brinker believes has saved countless lives, though the organization’s prospects weren’t apparent at its inception. “Remember,” she says, “there was no Internet, no social media, back then—just the phone. I was advised it would take at least a decade to make any type of impact.”

In fact, it took far less time, circumstances Brinker attributes in part to the women’s movement of the 1970s. “The world was ready for us,” she says.

Brinker’s devotion to public service led to her appointment as U.S. Ambassador to Hungary from 2001-2003 and U.S. chief of protocol from 2007-2009.

Although she has received countless honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Brinker says the Order of Lincoln Award holds a special place in her heart. “I grew up in Peoria, the best and most wonderful place in the world,” she recalls. “There was such pride of community, and as a child you could roam from neighborhood to neighborhood.”

While growing up, Brinker witnessed the virtues of community service first hand. “I didn’t have a trust fund, but I had great parents, which was better,” she says. “My mother was a great, great volunteer.”

Brinker gives equal credit to the time she spent at UI, where she received an education she hadn’t anticipated. “The University had a magnificent program for the disabled, even back then. I’d never seen such bravery, such courage, and I began to recognize the benefits of philanthropy.”

Today, Brinker continues to serve as chair of Komen for the Cure while traveling the world to assist other organizations in achieving their goals. Some involve cancer, others don’t.

“It’s humbling,” she says. “To tell you the truth, I’m surprised people recognize my name. It’s Susan’s name they know. Susan’s.”