Who is Your Suzy?

by Gina Morss
Susan G. Komen Memorial Affiliate

There are many ways to get involved during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Blush, rose, fuchsia… yes, there is a lot of pink in October! Around the globe, it’s become synonymous with breast cancer awareness. The pink ribbon is now a universal icon of hope.

Of course, the mission to defeat this disease goes beyond Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Susan G. Komen is the world’s largest breast cancer organization, funding more breast cancer research than any other nonprofit while providing real-time help to those facing the disease. Since its founding in 1982, the Dallas-based organization has funded more than $800 million in research and provided more than $1.7 billion in funding for screening, education, treatment and psychosocial support programs serving millions of people in more than 30 countries worldwide.

The Peoria area can take particular pride in this grassroots movement and its global impact. You see, Suzy Goodman Komen was a Peoria girl. A graduate of Richwoods High School, the wife and mother of two had an infectious enthusiasm and generous heart. Then came the diagnosis that would eventually take her life. In 1977, breast cancer was shrouded in stigma and shame—no one talked about early detection or mammograms. No one could even say the words “breast” and “cancer” together in polite company, let alone on television newscasts.

With loved ones like her sister, Nancy G. Brinker, and best friend, Linda Washkuhn-Sutkowski, by her side, Suzy endured the many indignities of cancer treatment. After three agonizing years, Suzy made Nancy promise to end the silence, raise money for scientific research, and one day, cure breast cancer for good. When her beloved sister died in 1980 at the age of 36, Nancy Brinker’s life’s work began. She made it her mission to change the way the world talked about and treated breast cancer. This mission took on added urgency when Nancy was diagnosed with the disease in 1984. She was luckier than her sister and went on to make Susan G. Komen the world’s most influential breast health charity.

Racing for a Cure
Among the initial fundraisers organized by Nancy’s tribe of volunteers was a 5K race in Dallas, Texas. Linda Washkuhn-Sutkowski attended that first Race for the Cure and asked, “Why not Peoria?” Two years later, she and a committed crew of Junior League members produced the first Komen Peoria Race for the Cure, which marks its 30th anniversary in May. Year after year, it generates hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund local community health grants and global breast cancer research. There are now more than 120 Race for the Cure events produced each year by Komen affiliates across the country and beyond.

It’s important to note that Race for the Cure is only how we do what we do at Susan G. Komen. The vision of Susan G. Komen is a world without breast cancer. The promise of its team is to save lives and end breast cancer forever by empowering people, ensuring quality care for all, and energizing science to find the cures. We keep that promise by raising funds through races, rallies and pink-tie galas. We energize science by investing in the best and boldest research—research that has helped to turn millions of breast cancer patients into breast cancer survivors. Komen is certainly not the only organization doing good work, but it was the launching pad, catalyzing women around the world to battle breast cancer. Today, our organization is proud to work collaboratively with others like the Dr. Susan Love Foundation and Bright Pink.

Who is Your Suzy?
Nancy Brinker chronicled the evolution of Susan G. Komen and the transformation of how the world talks about and treats the disease in her memoir, Promise Me. Even she admits how surprised she was by the organization’s ability to strike a chord. Reflecting on the success of a first attempt at fundraising, Nancy writes:

Dozens of cars turned into hundreds, a steady stream of headlights emerging from the mist. It reminded me of the stream of firefly headlights wending their way to our front porch in search of Suzy. Just like that bevy of boys, they came because they loved her. Maybe not my Suzy; none of these people had known her. They each had their own Suzy—or they were the Suzy for someone else.

At the Susan G. Komen Memorial Affiliate, I am reminded daily that people give to other people, not simply to a cause. Breast cancer touches everyone; one in eight women will be diagnosed with the disease. In other words, everyone has a Suzy in their lives. I have been blessed to witness the courage and strength of many “Suzy’s” who have battled breast cancer.

I began sharing the stories of these survivors as a television reporter for WEEK-TV nearly two decades ago, and today, I am privileged to continue these reports. I’ve learned that most patients will beat the disease. In fact, the five-year relative survival rate is 99 percent when breast cancer is detected in its earliest stages (compared to 74 percent in 1982 when Komen was founded). Still, my heart breaks for those survivors battling metastatic disease, like my friends Joann and Elizabeth, and I’m saddened by the loss of young patients like Doug Troxell. Yes, men can get breast cancer, too. It’s clear that we have made great strides, but there is more work to do.

Hope Through Research
On a hot summer day in 1995, Susan G. Komen research grant recipients Dr. Mary-Claire King, then of UC-Berkeley, and Doctors Jeff Holt and Roy Jensen of Vanderbilt University made a groundbreaking announcement. They had discovered a genetic link to breast cancer. “It really was a game changer,” says Komen Memorial Affiliate Executive Director Linda Maricle, who attended that news conference. She remembers thinking, “If we can do this, then there is hope for more.”

The discovery of the "breast cancer gene" revolutionized the study of numerous other common diseases. Today, BRCA1 and the related BRCA2 are responsible for about five percent of breast cancer cases in the U.S., and screening for changes in the genes can steer women toward potentially lifesaving treatments.

In 2011, the Caterpillar Foundation awarded Susan G. Komen a generous $2-million grant to increase breast cancer awareness and improve screening rates in Latin America. The unprecedented three-year grant funds community grants to Komen’s partner non-governmental organizations in Monterrey, Mexico; São Paulo, Brazil; and Panama City, Panama to develop early detection and awareness programs. This investment is a tremendous point of pride for Nancy Brinker, who now concentrates her breast cancer fighting efforts as chair of the organization’s global strategy.

This month, hundreds of runners will race past Caterpillar world headquarters in Peoria as part of the second annual Susan G. Komen Memorial Promise Run & Relay, an event to raise awareness and funds to support local community health grants throughout Komen Memorial’s 36-county service area. For the first time, the event will also include a 1-Mile River Walk for those who are not endurance runners.

During National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Komen affiliates around the country will educate, empower and engage people in a variety of ways. What will you do to make a difference? Volunteer at a water station along the Promise Run & Relay route? Lace up your running shoes? Hold the hand of a patient while they undergo chemotherapy? On the eve of what would have been Suzy’s 71st birthday, I will be at the Pink Promise Celebration, a survivor fashion show and luncheon at the Par-A-Dice Hotel on October 30th. We can all make an impact in this mighty mission, here at home and beyond. iBi

For more information and ways you can get involved, visit komenmemorial.org or connect on Facebook at facebook.com/komenpeoria or Twitter @KomenMemorial.


Source URL: https://www.peoriamagazines.com/ibi/2014/oct/who-is-your-suzy