Barbara Brenner, Breast Cancer Activist, 1951-2013

Lawyer and activist Barbara Brenner led the organization Breast Cancer Action to national prominence, demanding not just “awareness” of the disease but research into causes and prevention. Although she overcame breast cancer herself, she died last week from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) at age 61.

Barbara Brenner put up her final Healthy Barbs blog post earlier this week. I will miss her fierceness, passion and uncompromising intelligence.

I got to know Barbara as the head of Breast Cancer Action; back then, as I recall, the organization’s motto was, “The Bad Girls of Breast Cancer.” I liked that.

It often took me years of conversations to catch up with Barbara’s thinking. She was the one who first talked to me about the over-promise of mammography. She also talked about the lack of centralized data on cancer patients and cancer research. That just sounded wonky to me, but now I finally get how critical that work is.

Barbara may be best known for coining the term “pinkwashing” (again, years before anyone really “got it”). Pinkwashing is when companies claim to care about women and breast cancer by sporting the pink ribbon while at the same time producing products linked to the disease or other threats to public health. There are legions of examples. In my recent Times article I wrote:

Having football teams don rose-colored cleats, for instance, can counteract bad press over how the NFL handles accusations against players of rape or domestic violence. Chevron’s donations to California [Susan G.] Komen affiliates may help deflect what Cal OSHA called its “willful violations” of safety that led to a huge refinery fire last year in a Bay Area neighborhood.

During her tenure at Breast Cancer Action, Barbara launched the high-profile “Think Before You Pink” campaign. She was also featured in the recent documentary, Pink Ribbons, Inc.

Barbara was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993 at age 41; about three years later, she had a local recurrence. Then, after 15 years of breast cancer activism, she contracted another disease—ALS. Often (and incorrectly as she would tell you) called “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” ALS is a fatal degenerative neuromuscular illness. Barbara wrote a post about this outstanding PSA, put together by supporters of football player Steve Gleason to raise needed awareness, and how it differed from the typical pink-ribbon feel-goodism:

Discussing the two illnesses on Healthy Barbs, Barbara wrote:

The issues are both different and remarkably similar.

How I think about this illness and how I react are influenced by my years as a breast cancer activist. How people deal with me now makes me think about how people deal with others who are ill. The purpose of this blog, Healthy Barbs, is to encourage people to learn to think in new ways about illness and health and to prompt them to be critical of the mainstream coverage of health issues.

It’s not meant to be comfortable. It’s meant to make people THINK!

That is Barbara: It’s not about making nice. It’s about understanding, thinking, getting stuff DONE.

The last communication I had from Barbara was on May 7 in the comments to my previous post about Nancy Brinker’s 64 percent pay raise. Barbara wrote: “Actually, Brinker is still the CEO [of Susan G. Komen]. She will have that title until Komen hires her replacement. Who in their right mind would take that job if Brinker is still involved? Got me.”

On May 8, just one day later according to her Caring Bridge site, Barbara decided to stop taking nourishment. She continued to take liquids.

I hope she won’t mind that I’m copying part of her final post here:

I have been blessed to lead a rich life, full of love and culture and travel and work that had meaning for me. I have no regrets except that I got ALS in the first place.

I have met amazing people both in person and on-line. Everyone I have come in contact with has had something unique to offer the world. The world is a better place because these people are or were in it. Some of these people I have mentored (and you know who you are), others have taught me. What I know about all of these people is that I have been blessed to know them, and that they will succeed at what they set their hearts and minds to do.

In the Jewish tradition there is a Priestly Blessing. I copy below it because it is what I wish for all readers of these words:

May the Lord bless you
and keep you;
May the Lord make his face shine on you
and be gracious to you;
May the Lord turn his face toward you
and give you peace.

Barbara, you have made a difference in my life—and in that of so many others—as well as in my work. Your voice and spirit will always be in my heart. I love you. I will miss you.

Crossposted from Peggy Orenstein with permission. Photo courtesy of Breast Cancer Action.

Comments

  1. There are not nearly enough Barbara Brenner’s in the world and today, very sadly there is one less. Please pick up the work that is yet to be done for the sake of the health of our nation. Barbara, you remain an inspiration to so many of us.

  2. Sometimes things are simply too late. I have been an activist for longer than I care for. It is futile for the most part. The hard punch Barbra delivered is exactly what I was about to commend her for in her appearance on Pink Ribbons Inc. I did not know of her while she was alive. However, she lives on in my thoughts in knowing I am not alone in knowing the hard hit is what is needed to change minds. She is still an encouraging strength in her after life.

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