October – How Did Breast Cancer Awareness and Halloween Get Paired in the Same Month?

How did we end up with October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month?

Mammography schedules are jammed in October. It’s hard to work in the callbacks and biopsies. Everyone is pressured to get it done before the looming Holiday Season. And if we find cancer, it spoils that festive stretch from Thanksgiving to Christmas, Hanukkah, or whatever through New Years…not to mention the fact that deductibles were met at the time of the mammographic screening, but then in January it starts over again as cancer care continues. Ugh! How did we ever get here?

Prior to 1980, there were no pink ribbons, no races, no walks. There was very little awareness and breast cancer was not discussed in polite society. The fact that Shirley Temple Black (breast cancer in 1972), Betty Ford (1974) and Happy Rockefeller (diagnosed 2 weeks after Ford in 1974) made their diagnoses public was shocking (and trailblazing). And when the Susan Komen Foundation was established in 1982, newspapers resisted using the words “breast cancer.” As late as 1993 when we opened our doors at the University of Oklahoma Institute for Breast Health, there were complaints about our signage with its “irreverent” word BREAST plastered right there in public.

Let’s go back to the 1940s when Susan and Nancy Goodman were sisters growing up in a well-to-do Jewish family in Peoria, Illinois. Who could have conceived of the notion that both girls carried a mutation in BRCA-1 that would lead to breast cancer in the both of them? After all, it would be more than 50 years before the launch of commercial testing of BRCA-1 and BRCA-2.

susan komen and nancy brinker

Susan grew up to be the “darling of Peoria,” a beauty queen and local model. She would enter a disastrous first marriage (groom collapsed at the wedding for starters), followed by a second marriage to Stan Komen who would run a liquor store – Stan’s Wine and Spirits – in Peoria until his retirement in 2014.

At age 33, Susan felt a breast lump. Not a good thing in 1977, on the eve of a revolution about to occur in the management of breast cancer. 1977 was, however, the peak time of enthusiasm for “subcutaneous mastectomies” with the newfangled breast implants for reconstruction…sometimes patient-driven, sometimes surgeon-driven and sometimes both. Pain, cysts, “fibrocystic disease,” you name it, then cough up the money, and surgeons would perform the “scoop out” procedure with implant reconstruction. Some women were very happy with their result. Many were not. And for some, considerable amounts of breast tissue remained in place. Nevertheless, no one at the time conceived of using the procedure for treating cancer — except for Susan’s surgeon who had been recommended by her family physician in Peoria.

After performing subcutaneous mastectomy for Susan’s cancer, the surgeon pronounced her cancer-free, a tad premature since she developed positive nodes shortly thereafter and systemic metastases as well. After treatment at both the Mayo Clinic and M. D. Anderson, she was still left with chest wall recurrences and died 3 years later in 1980 at the age of 36. Given the aggressiveness of this tumor, it is hard to lay blame on the unusual subcutaneous approach used for local control, but it is noteworthy nonetheless.

Meanwhile, younger sister Nancy had moved to Dallas where she became a buyer for Neiman Marcus, and then, in 1981, she became the bride of Norman Brinker, the restaurant magnate who founded Steak and Ale, et al, (now Brinker International) and is credited with the development of that omnipresent dining staple – the salad bar. With her new financial stature and a deathbed promise to her sister Susan, Nancy Brinker founded the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation in 1982, a mere 2 years after Susan’s death. The foundation became intimately linked to Dallas as a result of Nancy’s new home, not Susan’s home in Peoria (although Peoria did become a site for a “Komen Breast Center,” a nationwide network concept of screening centers that never happened.)

The first Race for the Cure took place in Dallas, Texas with 800 participants in 1983. The rest is history. I attended the first race in Oklahoma City (1989, as I recall) where participants ran around the racing track at Remington Park. Pink ribbons were not introduced until 1991, and though several groups lay claim to the pink revolution, I’m pretty sure it was a Komen innovation.

One year after that first Race for the Cure, Nancy Brinker was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent unilateral mastectomy and later contralateral prevention, even though her BRCA-1 mutation was not confirmed until 2006.

Initially, the sole agenda for Komen was to flood the country with high quality screening mammography. This drew some objections, including one prominent breast surgeon who broke ranks with the movement by clarifying that mammography is not a “cure,” and that we needed to be thinking more about a true cure and a “post-mammographic era.” Eventually, Komen expanded its scope to all types of breast cancer research.

Nevertheless, the growth of the Race for the Cure was phenomenal, taking place in a parallel fashion to the breast cancer diagnosis and treatment revolution that was well underway. It is estimated that, today, over 1.5 million participants raise money through one of several outreach programs sponsored by Susan G. Komen (several name changes of the foundation have occurred over the years, but Susan’s name is always there). Politics, of course, wormed its way into the activities of Susan G. Komen and eventually Nancy Brinker resigned as CEO.

Back to Breast Cancer Awareness in the spooky month of October. Around 1985 or 1986, the American Cancer Society teamed up with a pharmaceutical company that later became Zeneca, then AstraZeneca, announcing October as National Breast Cancer Awareness month. Zeneca was criticized for self-serving interest since they manufactured pharmaceuticals used for breast cancer. But they had, in fact, done their own internal audit on employees, showing that it was cheaper to screen with mammograms for an early diagnosis than to do nothing and pay for treatment of more advanced disease.

At this same time, the famous (or infamous) Breast Cancer Detection Demonstration Project was reporting results indicating that massive screening of the general population in the U.S. was both feasible and effective. The BCDDP was sponsored by the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute, both organizations riding the waves of the War on Cancer legislation signed by President Nixon in 1971. So, by the mid-80s, the policy makers were wildly enthusiastic about general population screening with mammography, and it was a case of “full steam ahead.”

Still…why October?

I’ve not been able to nail down the definitive reason for selecting October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but I have a theory. Even though I can’t find the link between the rapid rise of the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the proclamation made by the American Cancer Society, I think the answer might be found by looking at Susan Goodman Komen’s birthday – she was born on October 31, 1943. She would have been 76 this coming Halloween.





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