One morning two and a half years ago, Ambassador Nancy Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the world’s largest cancer nonprofit, checked her email and found something that would take her life in a new direction. 

The former George W. Bush administration Chief of Protocol had received a mailer from the Women’s Philanthropic Fund, sent by her good friend, Julie Fischer Cummings, a top Florida businesswoman and prominent philanthropist. The Women’s Philanthropic fund reported findings that Florida, where Brinker lived, ranked 49 out of 50 states in health benefits for women.

With the help of her friends, Nancy Brinker became a new kind of fixer—and she believes the Promise Fund of Florida can be a model for other localities.

Brinker was astonished. “Although I have lived here off and on for 35 years,” says Brinker, “I had never seen data like this. Forty-nine out of 50. Then I saw that Palm Beach County, which is the third largest county in our state, had mostly for-profit hospitals. We do not have a large nonprofit. We do not have a Baptist hospital. We don’t have a university hospital, a nonprofit organization. We used to have one, and they collapsed it into two, and then had two for-profit hospitals come in. So, as a result, and also as a result of a lot of concierge doctors’ practices, et cetera, et cetera, a lot of women are left out of healthcare.”

Brinker recalls, “I called Julie and I said, ‘Why did you put this in my mailbox? Is this real?’ I found it just shocking. Julie said ‘Yep, it’s real, and I put it in your mailbox because you have to fix it. You’re the only one who will take this on. Your whole life’s work has been about women and cancer.’”

Brinker was a good choice to “fix it.” She had created Susan G. Komen for the Cure in 1982, named for her sister, who died of cancer two years earlier. Before her death, Susan Komen begged Brinker to do everything in her power to end cancer.  The result was an international organization dedicated to eradicating breast cancer. Komen’s famous Race for the Cure is the most visible cancer fundraising event in the world. You recognize Komen’s pink ribbons. Brinker is author of the bestselling Promise Me: How a Sister’s Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer. Brinker is recipient of a host of civic awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2008, Time magazine put Brinker on its list of 100 most influential people in the world, describing her as “a catalyst to end suffering in the world.” IWF selected Brinker to receive our Woman of Valor award in 2007. Brinker stepped down as CEO of Komen in 2012. 

Needless to say, Brinker, who made early detection the mantra at Susan G. Komen, rose to Cummings’ challenge. The story of what happened because of that email is perfect for October, which is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. 

And Brinker, whose management expertise had once been global, now focuses much of her time on a single region, Palm Beach County.

“We established the Promise Fund of Florida,” she says. “We promised these individuals and others with disparities in our community, who have no medical home, no guidance, and many other issues that develop over this, that we would find not only screening and care and end death from early stage breast and cervical cancer, which we can do. We can cure people of these diseases if we find them early enough.”

Brinker teamed up with Cummings and lawyer turned media entrepreneur Laurie Silvers, another of Brinker’s friends, also a philanthropist, to found the Promise Fund of Florida. The fund is doing well in reaching its aim of raising $5 million by 2021. The stated goal of the Promise Fund is “to prevent the unnecessary progression of breast and cervical cancer in order to eliminate preventable loss of life in Palm Beach County, Florida.”

And Brinker, whose management expertise had once been global, now focuses much of her time on a single region, Palm Beach County. She hopes this micro-level operation can serve as a model for other localities. Promise gets involved with women on a personal level, helping them get to appointments and ensuring they get the appropriate treatment. Each woman has her own “navigator” to be with her through the maze of treatments. It is gut level work. “If you can navigate a woman, take her by the hand,” says Brinker, “you can get her to the facility where she will be screened, introduce her to where it is. In addition to the fear, most of these women have no medical home. Transportation is usually the second worst problem for the women with whom we work.

“Can you imagine what that’s like? So, here you are, a woman, a working, or poor woman, and you’re taking a day off or six hours off your job, and you have to get on a bus and go where and meet who? And then they’re going to talk to you and tell you that you’ve got to come back for 30 radiation treatments. Are they kidding? Where are you going to do that? The advocate in me got angrier and angrier thinking about this. This is social justice. This is not good, and we’ve got to fix it. So, that’s what we’re doing.” 

As for transportation, Brinker came up with a modern fix: “We got hold of Uber Health and worked out an arrangement. This overcame a huge barrier.”

As with Komen, Promise relates back to Brinker’s sister.

But the real focus is old-fashion person-to-person help:  

“We provide live navigation, not one of these things where you pick up a toll-free number that doesn’t work. These patients need to have a guide just like all of us do. And once they’re comfortable with that guide, you can’t believe what can happen. It is taking the time to do the right thing at the moment it happens. And we think by the end of this year, we will have educated, talked to, and navigated almost 5,000 people.”

Promise pioneers creative approaches. When, for example, Dr. David Dodson, a Promise board member, whom Brinker describes as “a hero in the chronic disease world,” suggested Brinker take a look at FoundCare, a federally-approved women’s health nonprofit, it opened new vistas. “These are centers that we have all over the United States which most people still don’t know about where for no pay at all they will treat you,” explains Brinker. If you have Medicaid, Medicare, any kind of insurance or self-pay, they will admit you and treat you. However, it is for primary care only. So, if you need to do something like mammography or a cervical ablation for a small tumor, that becomes a stepped-up care. So, we went to FoundCare and sat down and said to them ‘Look, what if we were able to get a great 3D mammography machine that we could install here and create a primary screening women’s center?’” The mammography machine was obtained and installed.

Also innovative, Promise got in touch with Lakeside Medical Center, a top-rated public hospital in nearby Belle Glade. Brinker recalls their pitch. “We said, ‘Since you already have a breast surgeon and the ability to do breast surgery, would you give us 30 otherwise dead nights a year, or the ability to put a patient here if she needs a mastectomy or a cervical ablation or some other procedure? We can put them here for two days, come and get them, work them back into their home, their job, whatever they need.’ There are a lot of pieces.”  Promise and Lakeside are in negotiations for an arrangement that, when finalized, will be a momentous achievement. 

But the real focus is old-fashion person-to-person help:
“We provide live navigation, not one of these things where you pick up a toll-free number that doesn’t work.”

Brinker developed this can-do attitude growing up in what she has described as “a loving family of passionate caregivers and innovative strivers” in Peoria, Ill. Marvin Goodman, her father, was a businessman, who “embodied the solid values” he passed on to Nancy and her older sister Susan. Mother Ellie Goodman was a community activist, Girl Scout leader, and, foreshadowing her daughter, a fundraiser for the cause of finding a cure for polio.   

“I was a tomboy and loved horseback riding,” Brinker previously has recalled. “In school, I struggled with dyslexia, compensating by keeping my nose to the grindstone. Suzy balanced my academic monk routine with her fresh and funny spirit, always quick with a wisecrack and ready for adventure. She stayed in Peoria, creating a home filled with art, music and love for her husband and two children.” 

A graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Nancy moved to Dallas and worked at Neiman-Marcus, launching a career in public relations and broadcasting, “always elbow-deep in fundraising efforts for a variety of charities.” In 1981, Nancy Goodman married the late Norman Brinker, polo player and restaurant entrepreneur who founded the chains Steak & Ale and Chili’s. The marriage ended in divorce. Brinker has one son, Eric, now a venture partner. Nancy Brinker is herself a breast cancer survivor.

As with Komen, Promise relates back to Brinker’s sister.  She says, “This is the next chapter after Susan Komen, because this is an issue that really bothered my sister all those years ago in 1978 as I sat next to her and the cancer veteran Andy Anderson. This bothered her when she would look down the hall and see people of all cultures sitting on the floor waiting to be treated, and we were asked to come in the doctor’s office rather quickly. And it bothered her. And she looked at me and she says, ‘You know, where you live shouldn’t matter whether you live. This is awful.’ And that bothered her almost more than anything. And I felt personally I hadn’t done enough about this. And so, it all just came together. Five years ago I modified my approach to cancer care and delivery because I saw what I needed to do, and I couldn’t do under the auspices of a larger, transnational organization. And it’s that simple. We needed another approach. We needed another model that was agile and community-focused.”

With the help of her friends, Nancy Brinker became a new kind of fixer—and she believes Promise can be a model for other localities.  And, as always, she urges women to get a mammogram, especially this month.