‘The pit bull of breast cancer’

Barbara A. Brenner *77 in 2006
Barbara A. Brenner *77 in 2006
Mike Kepka/San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis

Oct. 7, 1951 – May 10, 2013

When her life partner, Barbara Brenner *77, died, Suzanne Lampert *75 recalled the promise she had made to her: “I always told her that I would make sure her obituary said she died after a long battle with the breast-cancer industry.”

After Brenner learned she had breast cancer at 41, she joined the board of Breast Cancer Action (BCA), a grassroots advocacy organization in San Francisco, and a year later became its executive director, elevating the five-year-old group to a national force that altered the conversation about the disease. 

Hers was an obstreperous voice that took on those she saw as offering “feel-good” approaches to the disease and profiting from breast-cancer advocacy campaigns. She was critical of “pinkwashing,” her term for the way some companies used pink ribbons as marketing ploys while making products that contributed to causing cancer. BCA’s “What The Cluck?” campaign fought a fundraising program in which Kentucky Fried Chicken and Komen for the Cure sold pink buckets of chicken; the group argued that fried chicken could boost obesity, a risk factor for breast cancer, and that the fast-food chain targeted low-income communities with little access to healthy food. 

“She loved the saying ‘Speak truth to power,’ and she was never afraid to take on anybody — doctors, the FDA, anybody she perceived was not serving the interests of cancer patients,” Lampert says. Brenner told Ms. Magazine in 2005: “We serve no purpose in being nice.”

BCA became the first breast-cancer organization to refuse to accept funding from corporations such as drug companies that it saw as profiting from or contributing to cancer. Brenner — dubbed “the pit bull of breast cancer” in a profile published by Smith College, where she had been an undergraduate — also argued that mammograms are over-promoted as a lifesaving tool, and pressed for research into the causes and cures for cancer and the tools needed to achieve results, such as comprehensive data on cancer patients.

Brenner, who was 61 when she died, dropped out of the Woodrow Wilson School master’s program to follow Lampert to California, and later graduated from law school at the University of California, Berkeley.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer again in 1996, when she had a mastectomy, and in 2010 learned she had ALS, a progressive disease that affects the brain and the spinal cord, which was the cause of her death. The disease stole her powerful voice, but she continued to speak out through witty and incisive posts on her blog, Healthy Barbs, reflecting on her life and taking on the medical establishment. In her final post, dated three days before her death, she thanked her friends and readers, saying she had been blessed to lead “a rich life full of love and culture and travel and work that had meaning.” 

In 2011, Brenner made a video for USA Today in which she spoke about the many things she still could do, including playing the piano and completing The New York Times crossword puzzle with relative ease, “at least Monday through Wednesday.” At the time, she was using an iPad application that turned her written words into speech, though the mechanical voice was a far cry from the passionate voice that was her own. The intensity was still there, however. “If I focus constantly on the loss, I think I would end up in a pretty self-pitying place,” she said, “and that so does not interest me.”

Jennifer Altmann is an associate editor at PAW.