“All the rejection in the world can’t stop the power of a promise that you make to a loved one.” – Eric Brinker, Nephew of Susan G. Komen
At Metro Centre in Peoria, pink flags wave on top of parking lot lights. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but these flags stay up all year. Metro Centre used to be farmland, a place where Susan G. Komen, namesake of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, would go horseback riding. Now it is a community shopping center owned by Eric Brinker.
Eric came to the MobileBooth on one of the first crisp fall days to talk about how his family started Susan G. Komen Foundation. “Susan G. Komen was my aunt. She died of breast cancer at age 37,” Eric says. Susan had breast cancer in “the dark days” of the disease. “You didn’t talk about it. You called it the big C word. They weren’t providing treatment options that were anything more than barbaric. People thought it was contagious.”
Susan was treated with high magnitude radiation. She had third degree burns all over her body, down to her legs. On Susan’s deathbed she told her sister Nancy (Eric’s mother), “Nanny, we need to do everything that we can do to change the face of this disease. We need to raise awareness. We need to eradicate it.” Nancy Brinker promised her sister that she would do everything she could do to make sure this happened.
“My mom was driven in a way that she wasn’t going to fail,” Eric says of his mother’s motivation to follow her promise after Susan’s death. Nancy began with the people she knew, calling a “shoebox full of names.” She kept calling. Then she called businesses. Many doors slammed in her face on her business-to-business odyssey. One time, Nancy went to a bra company to pitch the idea of putting self-breast exam tags on the bras. “She must have had 20 doors of bra companies slammed in her face. They all said, ‘We don’t want to be associated with negativity and bad news.’”
“Is there ever a moment when your mom was about to throw up her hands and say, this isn’t going to work?” I ask.
“The rejection was intense. There were slammed doors, rolled eyes, snickering and laughing. The attitude was so different back then and I felt it through my mom when she would come home from meetings where she thought she would have a breakthrough.” Eric continues, “But all the rejection in the world can’t stop the power of a promise that you make to a loved one.”
Nancy Brinker had the same form of breast cancer that Susan did, going through 16 reconstructive surgeries in the past 25 years. Eric remembers his childhood reaction to his mother’s disease. “It was scary for me seeing my mom with tubes hanging out of her and no hair.” Now he says, “I’m proud to say that I am a co-survivor with my aunt and my mother. Breast cancer is a family disease. When your mom has breast cancer, your whole family has breast cancer. Your family fights it together.”
“My mother went through a lot of determination, defiance and anger. She channeled that anger into something positive,” Eric says.
Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure started in Dallas, TX in 1983 with 800 people that Eric says were “mostly friends and relatives convinced to show up on a rainy day.” Three years later, Peoria Memorial was the second race to start. Now there are over 125 Race for the Cures with millions of participants every year.
Susan G. Komen Foundation has raised over $1.5 billion invested in the cause of breast cancer research and education. In the past 25 years, every single advancement in the science of breast cancer has been touched or funded by the Susan G. Komen Foundation.
Eric is now taking over Metro Centre, a project that his grandfather left him. He is preserving his grandfather’s office in the same way it was left – orange shag carpeting and suede wallpaper. He will continue to be an integral part in the movement that started with a promise between his mother and his sister. The power of the color pink is now a symbol for Breast Cancer Awareness in the parking lot of Metro Centre and around the world.
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