Get access

The History of Breast Cancer Advocacy


Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Susan Braun, Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, 5005 LBJ Freeway, Suite 250, Dallas, TX 75244, USA, or email:


Abstract: There have been four key steps in the advent of breast cancer advocacy: priming the market, engaging consumers, establishing political advocacy, and taking the advocacy mainstream. Breast cancer was surrounded by secrecy until the 1980s, when brave individuals such as former First Ladies Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan, and founder of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, Nancy Brinker (Susan Komen's sister), began speaking publicly about the personal impact of the disease, which increased awareness of breast cancer and made it more acceptable to talk about it openly. At the same time, statistics about breast cancer were presented in new ways that the public could understand. Public health advocates played a key role in the second step, engaging consumers, when they established guidelines in the 1980s that encouraged women to perform breast self-examinations (BSEs) and have screening mammograms and clinical breast examinations (CBEs). Other events that helped engage consumers were increased media coverage of breast cancer issues, the founding of the Komen Race for the Cure in 1983, and the establishment of other programs that both educated the public and raised funds. Funds from these efforts enabled advocates to hold educational forums and produce educational materials in different media and tailored to different audiences and to become active in the funding of research. The third step, political action, became possible when breast cancer advocates joined together in the 1980s and 1990s to work toward legislative, regulatory, and funding changes, such as passage of the Mammography Quality Standards Act and increased funding for the National Cancer Institute. These efforts contributed to a more than quadrupling of federal funding for breast cancer research in the 1990s. Going mainstream, the final step in the advocacy process, entailed establishing a solid base of support to ensure that the message about breast cancer stays strong and fresh. This has been achieved by engaging the business, government, and scientific communities as partners in advocacy.