Barbara Brenner dies at 61; breast cancer research activist

As a neurological disease robbed Barbara Brenner of her voice, the fiercely outspoken activist still managed to be heard.

She corralled technology, speaking through a text-to-voice application on her iPad and blogging about the concerns — including her own — of the seriously ill with frankness and wit. She called her blog Healthy Barbs.

Her journey from lawyer to full-time advocate began 20 years ago after she was diagnosed with breast cancer and wrote an impassioned letter to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle about the need for breast cancer research.

Breast Cancer Action, a San Francisco-based advocacy group, saw her words and invited her to join its board. As the organization’s director from 1995 to 2010, Brenner became a leading voice for greater focus on research into the causes of breast cancer.

Although she “beat the breast cancer odds,” as Brenner once said, she resigned her post because of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative nerve disorder. She died of complications from the disease May 10 at her San Francisco home, according to Breast Cancer Action. She was 61.


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

Under Brenner’s leadership, Breast Cancer Action “developed powerful campaigns that changed corporate behavior, clinical practice and research agendas,” Pearson said.

One high-profile campaign was “Think Before You Pink,” launched in 2002. It charged companies with using the pink ribbon as a marketing ploy and donating few, if any, profits to breast cancer causes.

Since women buy most of the products sold in the U.S., many companies “align themselves with the causes that women care about,” Brenner said in 2002 on National Public Radio. “Breast cancer is ideal from that point of view, and so bottom-line profits are what drives these campaigns.”

Breast Cancer Action harshly criticized the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation in 2010 for partnering with KFC to sell pink buckets of fried chicken. The group countered with a “What the Cluck?” campaign that pointed out that weight gain boosts the risk of breast cancer after menopause.

Even among her fans, Brenner was known as a “piranha” and “the pit bull of breast cancer,” according to a 2007 profile in a Smith College publication. She received a bachelor’s degree in government from the school in 1973.

In the 2011 documentary “Pink Ribbons, Inc.” that examined breast-cancer fund-raising, Brenner periodically weighed in with “wise and compelling observations that will make you want to march … to force real changes in medicine and marketing,” the Boston Globe said in its review.

She considered the film part of her legacy, Brenner told the San Francisco Chronicle last year.

By then, she had also become an advocate for research into amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, which her older sister, Ruth, died of in 2006. It is better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which rankled Brenner, who argued that as time passed, fewer people even know who Gehrig was and “the pictures of him don’t indicate anything about ALS.” A legendary baseball player, Gehrig was 37 when he died of the disease in 1941.

The third of seven children, Barbara Ann Brenner was born Oct. 7, 1951, in Baltimore into what she once described as a “liberal Jewish household.” By age 10, she was accompanying her librarian mother, Bettie, to civil rights marches. Her father, Morton, worked in finance and the garment industry.

At Smith College in Massachusetts, Brenner actively protested the Vietnam War. As a graduate student at Princeton University, she met Suzanne Lampert and dropped out to follow her to California. In addition to Lampert, her partner of 38 years, Brenner is survived by four brothers, Joseph, Mark, Richard and Lawrence, and a sister, Nanci Grail, all of the greater Baltimore area.

Realizing that the law could be used to effect positive change, Brenner decided to earn a law degree from UC Berkeley, according to Breast Cancer Action. After graduating in 1981, she became a partner in a San Francisco law firm focusing on public policy and political litigation.

She faced breast cancer twice, in 1993 and 1996, when she had a mastectomy.

While using her iPad to speak in 2011, Brenner said in a USA Today video: “If I focus constantly on the loss, I think I would end up in a pretty self-pitying place, and that so does not interest me. We can all do somethings, even if they are not the things we could do before.”

On her list of “things I can still do” were play piano, listen to beautiful music, read, think, walk “as long as I do it slowly and mostly on flat surfaces,” and chop fruits and vegetables.