Nancy G. Brinker, Founder of the Komen Race for the Cure, on Death and Divorce
Her new book, Promise Me, lays it all out, from her last words to her dying sister to the unraveling of her marriage to Norman Brinker.
Q: Why did you decide to write the book now?
A: I always thought memoirs were for people who are really old, and then I realized I’m getting really old. I wasn’t quite sure if I had that much to tell at this point in my life, or that it was enough to really warrant a discussion with the public. But I do now. I think we’re well on our way to finding strategies to keep people with advanced diseases alive longer. I guess I wanted people to know where I believe we’re going. And for young people, particularly, who look at things as most young people do as overnight success stories. I’m not saying we’re the greatest success—and I would not think we’re the greatest success until people can live long and normal lives with breast cancer—but I do feel that this has been a long-term commitment. It’s been a generation of work.
Q: You tell the story of a reporter who was at your first fundraiser. She wrote an article that used the phrase “breast cancer,” which is one of the first times that phrase found its way into print. How did you get that term mainstreamed?
A: Young people don’t understand that there actually was a time in their parents’ lives when you couldn’t print the word “breast” in newspapers and magazines. Many young people don’t recognize that this subject was not spoken about when I was young. It was called “The Big C.” I realized if we were going to change the clinic, we had to first change the culture of America. That’s why I developed Race for the Cure. It was a positive way to deal with something like this.
Q: How difficult was it for you to sit down and write this book?
A: It was difficult. If not for Joni Rodgers, who was the writer and co-author with me, I’m not sure I could have done it. Even though you think you’ve walked through the sad places in your life and you come up to the other end, when you relive them over a period of eight, nine, or 10 months, it’s very painful. I went through my own cancer, my sister Suzy’s cancer, my father dying, and Norman with his tragedy. And yet I’ve had so many blessings in my life and so many wonderful things happen. I had the opportunity to remember and believe and see all the wonderful things that have happened.
Q: You write candidly about your relationships, especially the one you had with Norman. (The couple divorced, and he remarried before his death.) Was it your goal in the beginning to be so open?
A: I think Joni convinced me as we went along that it was very important to be as open and authentic as possible. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be, but I wasn’t sure it would be interesting to anybody. I wanted to be very open about my relationship, particularly with Norman, because they’re not things you would announce to a community. I think there were people who were sad and curious as to why we couldn’t be together. I think I laid it out very clearly. It was very painful. I think I wanted to finally put that to bed.
Q: What if this spurs more questions?
A: If it does, I’ll be very happy to answer them. I wanted to make it very clear that he was not only a great love, but my husband, my role model, and a teacher. We loved each other until the day he died.
Q: You write about how you meet women with cancer whom you end up loving. Then, when one of them dies, you feel the loss of Suzy all over again. So why continue?
A: It’s a promise I made. I promised her I would do this, and a promise shouldn’t be taken lightly. Suzy has never given me a reason not to do this.