Eric Rosenthal Reports

Thoughts and observations about issues, trends, and controversies in the cancer community.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Nancy Brinker on Why She Considers the Komen Leadership Change to be 'Evolutionary,' and Not Necessarily Related to Aftermath of Planned Parenthood Controversy

The latest news from Susan G. Komen for the Cure, issued late yesterday, may have been a surprise but it certainly wasn’t unexpected: Founder and CEO Nancy G. Brinker announced she would be seeking a new role with the organization, and Komen's president, Liz Thompson, said she would be resigning Sept. 7.


But the comments reported overnight by the news media made by Brinker and statements issued by the organization still seemed to indicate a certain sense of denial, as if the (pink) elephant in the room -- the controversy over Planned Parenthood funding earlier in the year -- was not really related to the leadership changes.


In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Brinker said she wasn’t making her transition from CEO to more of a fundraising, strategic, and global growth role for personal reasons or at the Board of Director’s urging, but because, “This is a time when I need to be, particularly, as visionary as possible and as outreaching as possible to people.”


She was then quoted as describing her role change and the resignation of Thompson as natural. “It’s not cleaning house, it’s an evolution,” she said according to the Journal, which also reported that Brinker said the changes had nothing to do with the Planned Parenthood firestorm, and the organization was “moving on.”


Komen also announced that Brinker would step down from her current post and also serve as chair of the Komen Board Executive Committee after “the search for a new senior executive has been completed,” and reported that two Board members, Brenda Lauderback and Linda Law, had resigned from the Board two days earlier, and that a second affiliate position on the Board had been created.


The Journal article stated that Thompson did not have another job at this time, and in a letter from Brinker to “advocates in science” that I obtained, Brinker noted that “Liz has been contemplating this decision for several months but wanted to see the organization through our recent controversies, and now believes that we are in a good place that allows her to move on to other opportunities.”


To add insult to injury Komen suffered additional negative publicity last week when an article in the BMJ - British Medical Journal by Steven Woloshin and Lisa M. Schwartz said that the organization had overstated the benefits of mammography in an awareness campaign.


And a few days before learning of this newest shift in organizational leadership, I had requested to speak with Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center’s Carlos L. Arteaga, MD, about his recent appointment to Komen’s Scientific Advisory Board, but he declined to comment.


However, when I contacted Nancy Brinker earlier today, reminding her that when we last spoke she had promised me that we would discuss the past year’s events and the organization’s future following the November election, she said she would call me later.  It was only the second interview she had granted after speaking with the Journal, I learned.


I also let her know that my questions would focus on: Why Komen is still denying that these changes are related to the controversy over Planned Parenthood earlier this year, and why she was attributing Liz Thompson’s resignation to “evolution.”


When we spoke by phone, Brinker was adamant about the importance of moving on and not being caught up in what had happened in the past.


“That [Planned Parenthood] was a circumstance that we went through. We made some mistakes. We admitted the errors, and we apologized. We are not going to stand still and continue to go through something we’ve gone through. Rather, what we did was take what we learned and said what’s wrong here, let's fix it, and start the fixing process and move forward,” she said.


She added that she understood what had happened and how people have perceptions, “but the truth of the matter is we are not a political organization. Unfortunately there are certain newspapers and people who want to color us that way, but that’s not who we are. We know the mistakes we made and what happened, and it was not because we were political.”


And she made it clear that what happened was not something Komen would continue to talk about.


“I just don’t talk about it anymore, because it’s sort of like if you have something traumatic happen in your life and you keep talking about it and talking about it, then pretty soon you’ll become it, and our organization has such a huge mission that you just have to go forward with optimism and a belief that you can do it.


"Mistakes only make people stronger, and we are much stronger today than we were six months ago,” she said.


She said she was very pleased with the changes that are now happening within the organization, and that she had been advocating for them for quite a long time.


She said she was looking forward to relinquishing her administrative responsibilities as CEO and focusing on revenue generation and global issues, and her role as spokesperson, as well as having the time to attend meetings again and share collaborative ideas.


Brinker said she did not seek her current position but accepted it at the behest of the Board in 2009, and that her continuing role with Komen has been as a volunteer founder.  She said that as founder she has a lifetime seat on the Board and will do anything it takes to make Komen successful because she will do anything it takes to fulfill the promise to her sister, Susan Komen, who died of breast cancer in 1980 and in whose memory she started the breast cancer charity in 1982.


She spoke highly of Liz Thompson and her accomplishments and said that Thompson had told the Board in April that she wanted to step down but was asked to stay on until things had stabilized.


No particular event prompted this week’s reorganizational announcements, Brinker  said, but it just seemed to be the right time. She said Thompson would no longer have a role at the foundation when she left next month but that she hoped she might return in some advisory capacity in the future.