Noted Breast Cancer Activist Dies

Barbara Brenner ’73, who took on the corporate and medical establishments to advocate for greater research for breast cancer and less marketing, succumbs to ALS

Even after amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) had silenced her vocal chords, Barbara Brenner ’73’s powerful voice continued to send tremors into the medical establishment.

Barbara Brenner receives the 2012 Smith Medal.
Barbara Brenner ’73 accepting the 2012 Smith Medal from President Carol Christ.


With the assistance of a text-to-speech computer program, Brenner, the former executive director of Breast Cancer Action (BCA), sent missives to the head of the ALS clinical trials program and Food and Drug Administration officials and continued her work of advising others dealing with ALS and breast cancer.


Brenner died from complications of ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, on May 10, 2013, at age 61, at the San Francisco home she shared with her partner of 38 years, Suzanne Lampert.


Brenner was 41 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her diagnosis led her to join the board of BCA, a grassroots organization started in San Francisco by women with breast cancer. A year later, she became the organization’s first full-time executive director.


Under 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. It became the first breast cancer organization to refuse funding from any corporation profiting from cancer or contributing to cancer by polluting the environment. It was such a surprising policy that it was written up in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. One of the most successful—and controversial—of the BCA campaigns was “Think Before You Pink,” launched in 2002, exposing how pink ribbon marketing did not help fund prevention or find a cure for breast cancer.           



Cindy Pearson, executive director of the National Women’s Health Network, said, “Barbara made things happen in the world of breast cancer. She was responsible for changing the way women thought about breast cancer, and moved people from awareness to activism. Under her leadership, Breast Cancer Action developed powerful campaigns that changed corporate behavior, clinical practice and research agendas.”


Brenner stepped down as BCA’s executive director in 2010 because of her ALS diagnosis.


A prolific writer of commentaries and op-eds, Brenner co-authored the chapter “Cancers” in the 2006 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves (Touchstone) and wrote the chapter “Sister Support: Women in the Breast Cancer Movement” in Breast Cancer: Society Shapes an Epidemic (Palgrave Macmillan, 2000). She was also a much sought after speaker and media commentator.           


Brenner’s activism started early. Born in 1951, she was raised in Baltimore in a family of seven children, and she remembered hearing Martin Luther King Jr. when her mother took her to a civil rights march at age 10. At Smith she was active in the anti-war movement. At graduate school in Princeton, she came out as a lesbian in the early 1970s. It was there that she met Lampert, and together they moved to Los Angeles, Lampert’s hometown.


Brenner started working with the women’s rights project of the ACLU of Southern California, where she realized how the law could be used to effect positive change. It led her to attend what is now the UC Berkeley School of Law and intern at the ACLU of Northern California.


After law school, Brenner clerked for U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson, a distinguished jurist who had been the first African American to work for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department. She later became a partner at Remcho, Johansen & Purcell, a firm specializing in public policy and constitutional issues. Brenner also formed a firm with Donna Hitchens, working primarily on civil rights and employment discrimination.


Brenner’s expertise on civil liberties and breast cancer advocacy were joined last April, when the ACLU was before the U.S. Supreme Court challenging human gene patents, specifically those involving genes that indicate a predisposition for breast cancer. BCA was the only breast cancer organization to stand up as a plaintiff in the case.


Though she was involved with health policy on a national level, Brenner found time to provide compassionate advice to countless women who contacted her when they received a breast cancer diagnosis. She became adept at using technology and social media to consult with newly diagnosed women and to share her expertise and experience about ALS on her blog, Healthy Barbs.


Brenner was awarded numerous honors, including a Jefferson Award for public service in 2007. In 2012, she was awarded the Lola Hanzel Courageous Advocacy Award by the ACLU of Northern California, as well as the Smith Medal.


In addition to Suzanne Lampert, Brenner is survived by five siblings and 11 nieces and nephews. She was predeceased by her parents and a sister.