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A Family Crusade : She Survived Breast Cancer, Her Sister Didn't; Now Nancy Brinker Is Fighting to Save Others

May 02, 1989|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

Nancy Brinker was remembering Susan, the older sister who lost a three-year battle with breast cancer: "My sister, who taught me how to put on makeup, also taught me how to die."

She says, "When Suzie was dying, we made a commitment to one another. She'd never say 'when I die.' She'd always say 'when I get well' but we both knew what that meant. She said, 'I don't want other women to go through what I went through.' "

Susan Goodman Komen, fashion model and mother of two, died in 1980. She was 36. Two years later, Nancy Goodman Brinker founded the Susan G. Komen Foundation For The Advancement of Breast Cancer Research. "There were just the two of us (siblings)," Brinker explains, "and she also happened to be my best friend."

A Difficult Time

The final months of her sister's illness and the months that followed were rough for Brinker. There were the pressures of launching the foundation, job worries, a divorce and custody battle over her only child. But her marriage in 1981 to Dallas businessman Norman Brinker after a whirlwind three-week courtship was a good one, and, as time passed, she was feeling "settled and happy."

Then, in 1984, she recalls, "I was getting in bed one night and I put my hands under the sheets and ran over this hard little lump (in her left breast). I jumped a mile."

Nancy Brinker had had three benign breast lumps and she tried to reassure herself this was just another. But her doctor's diagnosis confirmed her worst fears: cancer. She was 37. "I sobbed," she says. "It's like someone stabbed you with a knife."

Then came "all those flashback scenes," every vivid detail of her sister's "very long and painful struggle with breast cancer. I thought that I was going to die."

For Norman Brinker, it also was the rerun of a nightmare. His first wife, tennis great Maureen (Little Mo) Connolly, died of ovarian cancer in 1969, three years after the disease had been diagnosed. She was 34 and left two young daughters.

Today, five years since her diagnosis, Nancy Brinker's doctors tell her she has no signs of the disease. But with cancer, she says, "You just pray. You never know." She still suffers from attacks of the "checkup crazies."

Brinker underwent a modified radical mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy that made her fatigued, occasionally nauseated and, she says matter-of-factly, "I was bald as a bowling ball."

No 'Piece of Cake'

Still, she can laugh and say, "People always say, 'Wasn't chemotherapy terrible?' It wasn't a piece of cake, but divorce was worse."

And she had an immediate goal, to play in a polo match that summer. Both Brinkers are avid polo players--he was a member of the 1952 U.S. Olympic equestrian team and founded the Willow Bend Polo and Hunt Club in Dallas. In August, 1985, one month after completing chemotherapy, she did play and recalls, "We won the game. To my embarrassment, my mother showed up on the field with a little oxygen tank."

Nancy Brinker since has undergone reconstructive breast surgery, as well as a preventive hysterectomy. A stunningly good looking woman, she has black hair, now grown back thick, pulled back in a chignon. Eschewing vanity, she wears bold red horn-rimmed glasses. She is 5-feet-10 and slender with a chic honed in four years as an executive trainee and assistant buyer with Neiman Marcus.

She has no patience with "women who whine" and, besides, she has no time for that sort of self-indulgence.

Last Saturday in Los Angeles, after speaking at a conference on diet and breast cancer sponsored by the Nathan Pritikin Research Foundation, she did an interview while packing for a weekend in Santa Barbara with her husband. "The first day I've had off in three years," she says.

She routinely logs 120,000 air miles a year. Later this week she'll be off to New York to do a segment for Phil Donahue on women and crisis.

Brinker is perennially named to "best-dressed" lists in Dallas and to committees for the right black-tie events. Norman Brinker, a self-made millionaire who stables strings of polo ponies in Dallas and Palm Beach, is chairman of Chili's, a Dallas-based chain with 200 restaurants nationwide, and former president of Pillsbury's restaurant group, which includes Burger King.

Not a Socialite

"Wonderful Norman," she calls him, shaking her head as she thinks about "that terrible thing that happened to Maureen." She does not identify with being a socialite. She would rather tell about being appointed in 1986 to the President's National Cancer Advisory Board, one of only six lay persons on the 18-member panel.

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