Obituary: Barbara Brenner / Breast cancer iconoclast was against America's 'pinkwashing'

Oct. 7, 1951 - May 10, 2013

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Barbara Brenner, who led the group Breast Cancer Action and shaped it in her own combative image, pillorying the medical establishment, industrial polluters and even other cancer research advocates, died May 10 at her home in San Francisco. She was 61.

Suzanne Lampert, her partner of 38 years, confirmed the death, of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Ms. Brenner also had breast cancer, though it had been in remission.

She championed causes for most of her adult life, protesting the Vietnam War as a college student and working on women's rights, civil rights and employment discrimination as a lawyer. She became Breast Cancer Action's first executive director in 1995, two years after undergoing treatment for the disease and a year before it recurred.

Ms. Brenner led the group until 2010, when illness forced her to retire. During the 15 years of her leadership, the group increased its membership to 50,000 from 3,500 and intensified its focus on demanding research into the causes of breast cancer, particularly links to environmental pollutants like chemicals in food and the water supply, an area of research rife with unreliable data.

Ms. Brenner was among the first to question what she called the "pinkwashing" of America: the proliferation of pink ribbons and products carrying labels stating that part of the purchase price would go to breast cancer research. Her group started a campaign, "Think Before You Pink," urging consumers to look into how much money was donated and where it went.

In one of many fiery posts on her blog, Healthy Barbs, she attacked another breast cancer group, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, for teaming up with KFC to produce pink buckets of chicken. Fried chicken, she said, promotes obesity, which is a risk factor for breast cancer.

Otis W. Brawley, the chief medical and scientific officer of the American Cancer Society, called Ms. Brenner "a dear friend," but added, "I didn't agree with her, probably 40 or 50 percent of the time."

One point of difference was over whether environmental factors play a major role in cancer. Ms. Brenner thought they did; Dr. Brawley is skeptical.

Breast Cancer Action gained respect for its policy, developed by Ms. Brenner, of not accepting donations from companies that make money from diagnosing or treating cancer, or whose products or processes might cause cancer. That meant no money from drug, oil, tobacco or chemical companies, or from cancer treatment centers or health insurers. That policy freed the group to hold such companies accountable.

Breast Cancer Action is now among the plaintiffs in a case being considered by the Supreme Court that challenges the right of Myriad Genetics Inc. to patent genes to maintain a monopoly on a blood test used to look for mutations that greatly increase the risk of cancer.

The policy also let Ms. Brenner speak her mind, which she often did. At a medical conference, she stood up and scolded a researcher who had described patients as failing a treatment. Patients do not fail treatments, she told him -- treatments fail patients.

Ms. Brenner was unapologetic about being so blunt. She told Ms. Magazine in 2005, "We serve no purpose in being nice."

Barbara Ann Brenner was born Oct. 7, 1951, in Baltimore, the third of seven children. Her father, Morton, worked in finance in the clothing industry, and her mother, Bettie, was a librarian.

Ms. Brenner graduated from Smith College and attended law school at Georgetown but left after a year, having decided, she said, that the law had little to do with justice. She enrolled in graduate school at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton, where she met Ms. Lampert.

After working for the American Civil Liberties Union in Los Angeles, Ms. Brenner resumed her law studies, earning a degree from the University of California, Berkeley.

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