Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Former BCA ED
Barbara Brenner dies


Barbara Brenner
(Photo: Courtesy Breast Cancer Action)
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Barbara Brenner, the former executive director of Breast Cancer Action who often took on the medical and charity establishments, died May 10 at her home in San Francisco. She was 61.

Ms. Brenner, an out lesbian, was a breast cancer survivor herself. But she was later diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) or Lou Gehrig's disease, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, leading to death.

Diagnosed with breast cancer at age 41, Ms. Brenner joined BCA, a grassroots organization started by women with breast cancer. A year later, Brenner became the group's first full-time executive director.

Under Ms. Brenner's leadership BCA grew into a national organization, and one that changed the conversation in breast cancer advocacy from building awareness to demanding research on causes and prevention.

The intensely opinionated Brenner wasn't afraid to speak her mind. She was a harsh critic of the Susan G. Komen Foundation's pink ribbon campaign (now Susan G. Komen for the Cure), which she felt offered a false "feel good" approach to breast cancer. In Lea Pool's 2011 documentary film Pink Ribbons, Inc. Ms. Brenner condemned Komen for its history of networking with companies she felt contributed to the disease by polluting the environment. Under her leadership, BCA refused to accept funding from those companies, an eyebrow raising move that was noted in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Ms. Brenner targeted big pharmaceutical companies whom she felt were profiteering off of illness and death. She campaigned heavily for research into cures, and also for preventative alternatives. Her tireless efforts made her a few enemies, but also awarded her many admirers.

"Barbara made things happen in the world of breast cancer," said Cindy Pearson, executive director of the National Women's Health Network. "She was responsible for changing the way women thought about breast cancer, and moved people from awareness to activism."

Another controversial issue that Ms. Brenner took on was the over-promotion of mammograms. She wrote, "The dominant message about mammography is that it will save your life. That message is so oversimplified as to be dishonest. Mammograms can only be lifesaving if they find a cancer that is treatable and if the woman gets treatment in a timely way – and one of the known causes of breast cancer is ionizing radiation, the kind you get from medical X-rays."

By the time Ms. Brenner stepped down from BCA in 2010 due to her ALS diagnosis, the organization had grown exponentially. "We started with a mailing list of 3,500," she recalled, "half of which were bad." By the end of her tenure, membership numbered 50,000. Ms. Brenner used a wide variety of strategies, included media, advising medical panels, and pressuring government agencies for research on prevention. Her opinion pieces appeared in many publications, including the Bay Area Reporter.

"Barbara was a visionary, activist, leader, and all-around change maker. We grieve Barbara's death deeply," Karuna Jagger, the current executive director of BCA, said in a statement to the B.A.R. "It's a great loss to the world of women's health activism, and we simultaneously celebrate all that she accomplished, all that changed because of her work, all that her legacy will enable. The world is a better place for her having been in it. We are spurred by Barbara's words: 'there is work to be done.'"

Ms. Brenner's activism started early. Raised in Baltimore in a family of seven children, she remembered hearing Martin Luther King Jr. when her mother took her to a civil rights march at age 10. At Smith College she was active in the anti-war movement, including shutting down the campus in 1970 as a protest against the war. At graduate school in Princeton, she came out as a lesbian in the early 1970s, and the experience radicalized her. It was there that she met Suzanne Lampert and they formed a bond that was to endure for four decades.

Ms. Brenner attended UC Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law and at one time formed her own law firm with Donna Hitchens, an out lesbian who later became a San Francisco judge.

Over the years Ms. Brenner received numerous awards, including the Smith College Medal from her alma mater in 2012 and the Lola Hanzel Courageous Advocacy Award from the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

In a powerful video posted by USA Today in 2011, Brenner, barely able to speak, used computer technology to communicate. She refused to give in to self-pity and listed the things she could still do at the time, which included: chopping vegetables, reading, thinking, and being able to sleep with her partner.

In addition to Lampert, Ms. Brenner is survived by her siblings Joseph S. Brenner, Mark A. Brenner, Nanci E. Grail (Donald Grail), Richard D. Brenner (Barbara), and Lawrence M. Brenner (Roderic Hooks), and 11 nieces and nephews, all of whom live in the greater Baltimore area. She is predeceased by her parents, Morton A. and Bettie B. Brenner, and her sister Ruth B. Newman.

Contributions in Ms. Brenner's memory can be made to the Barbara Brenner Rapid Research Fund at Breast Cancer Action:

Ms. Brenner's writings can still be viewed at her blog, Healthy Barbs, at

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