Susan G. Komen’s 35th Anniversary Luncheon Celebrated The Lives Saved Thanks To A Deathbed Promise

In 1977 33-year-old Suzy Goodman Komen learned she had breast cancer. At that time those two words were verboten in polite company. Too often patients diagnosed with the disease shared the news, their fears and their struggle with the immediate family and perhaps extremely close friends. It was almost treated like a scandal. Susie undertook the treatments with her kid sister Nancy Goodman Leitstein (Brinker) at her side. But due to lack of funding, research and treatments, Susie died at the age of 36 in 1980.

As she lay dying, 34-year-old Nancy, who was divorced and the mother of a son, made a promise that changed her life and those of millions of others. She told Suzy that she would do everything in her power to end breast cancer. War was declared.

From that promise sprang the annual Race for the Cure and a Komen luncheon that for years required boxes of tissues as breast cancer patients shared their journeys. Eventually, the effort to grow funds and awareness spread throughout the world. What didn’t survive was the luncheon. For whatever reason, it ended.  

Mary Lessmann, Gigi Hill Lancaster and Meredith Land

However, on Wednesday, September 27, the Komen Foundation of Dallas celebrated its 35th anniversary with a luncheon fundraiser at Belo Mansion. Chairing Susan G. Komen’s 35th Anniversary Luncheon was Gigi Hill Lancaster, who had lost her mother, the vibrant Gigi Griffiths Hill, to breast cancer at the age of 39 in 1984 when Lancaster was just 14.

Elizabeth Robertson, Jim and Alinda Wikert and Sharon McCutchin

Jill Smith, Lindalyn Adams and Randi Halsell

At 11:30 the VIP reception was already in full gear with Honorary Co-Chairs Linda Custard and Ruth Altshuler (Co-Chair Gene Jones had to be out of town), luncheon emcee Meredith Land, Diane Brierley, Nancy Halbreich, Janie McGarr and keynote speaker/breast cancer survivor Giuliana Rancic. In the ballroom were Komen past luncheon chair Randi Halsell, Lindalyn Adams and original chair Sharon McCutchins, Jill Smith, Elizabeth Robertson, Alinda and Jim Wikert and Brill Garrett. Komen Dallas Board President Connie O’Neill with two of her three daughters (Amanda Cacheris and Isabel O’Neill) was thrilled that so many young women were attending.

Connie O’Neill, Giuliana Rancic, Amanda Cacheris and Isabel O’Neill

Promptly at noon the luncheon crowd including Sara Martineau, Carol Huckin, Katy Bock, Cara French, Daffan Nettle and Vicki Howland took their places and from the podium Gigi thanked the honorary chairs, Alinda Wikert and her underwriting chair Rebecca Fletcher for having brought in $555,000. Gigi told how she was wearing waterproof mascara. Her mother had wished that she had worn waterproof mascara when she addressed the Komen luncheon just weeks before her death.

Gigi turned the podium over to St. Michael’s and All Angel’s/breast cancer survivor Rev. Mary Lessmann for the invocation.

Carlos Arteaga

Following a video, Connie was at the podium reporting that one billion dollars had been provided by Komen for research and two billion dollars dedicated for treatment for women in 30 countries. Their goal was to reduce breast cancer 50% by 2060.

She then introduced newly arrived in Dallas Dr. Carlos Arteaga, who had only recently relocated from Vanderbilt University Medical Center to head up the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center at UT Southwestern.

It was then time for Giuliana to tell her story in 25 minutes, but she immediately admitted that it was going to be tough to do it. Born in Italy at the age of six, she only spoke Italian. So, how did she learn English? She would watch TV, especially the evening news. Her initial plans to be a TV journalist changed to concentrating on fashion and entertainment, which led to her moving to LA.

Giuliana Rancic

There she ended up with her dream job of being a reporter for E News. While there she heard the assignments editor mentioning the name “Bill Rancic,” who had just won the first “The Apprentice.” She asked for the interview and got it only to google Bill Rancic romance, where it said that he was dating someone. When she got to the interview, she impressed Bill by looking “bored and distant.” Needless to say, she had lost interest in him but carried on with the interview. Her final question was, “Are you going to settle down?” He responded, “Actually we broke up three weeks ago.”

According to Bill, an “immaculate transformation took place.” Eight months later they were engaged with a wedding taking place six months after that.”

The couple was approached about their doing a reality show. They agreed only if it could be positive. During this time they tried to conceive, and eventually sought help from fertility experts. But they miscarried and tried again with no luck. Giuliana was sad, angry and depressed — “Why did this happen?”

They sought help from another fertility specialist. In filling out the questionnaire, the last quest on the check list was “Have you had a mammogram?” Giuliana hadn’t and wanted to skip it. After all, she’d had no family history; she was in her 30s; she was in great health. But the nurse insisted, so she agreed.

Then she got a call to come to the clinic. As she waited to learn the results, she got an eerie feeling and ran to the elevator. The nurse came after her and brought her back. The doctor said that she did have breast cancer. Her reaction? “Your life just changes. I felt like I was falling.”

She shared her story on the show to help other young women to get a mammogram. Initially she thought the lumpectomy would be the answer. It didn’t work. She and Bill talked about it. Her concern was that a mastectomy would make her unattractive. Bill’s response: “I don’t care what you look like. I just want you around for the next 50 years.”

Those words made her mind up to go through with the mastectomy. In the meantime, the couple decided to check into having a gestational carrier. She admitted that after the months of disappointment and cancer, she needed some good news. That came two weeks after her surgery in December when they found out that the carrier was pregnant. On August 29, Edward Duke Rancic was born.

Within one year, Giuliana had had the worst day of her life and the most amazing.  She also realized that had she gotten pregnant, she probably wouldn’t be here.

Since then she has made fertility and breast cancer her rallying points.

Then Giuliana recalled a year ago meeting Klarissa, who in her 20s was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. Giuliana had just gotten an update that Klarissa was fighting for her life. Giuliana started to read a post from Klarissa’s Instagram the day before, but couldn’t go on. She asked Gigi to come to the podium and read: “…. I can’t help but wonder what memories I will leave behind.”

Giuliana summed up her talk saying, “You don’t have to travel 2,000 miles to climb a mountain to find your purpose. Your purpose is right here in this room.”

Just past 1 p.m., the luncheon was over. The next day Julia Louis-Dreyfuss announced, “One in eight women get breast cancer; today I’m the one.” But thanks to a sister’s promise made in 1980, Giuliana, Julia and millions of others will have their lives saved.  

Plans Announced For Luncheon Celebrating Susan G. Komen’s 35th Anniversary With Giuliana Rancic As Keynote Speaker

Breast cancer all too often was a death sentence or at least an excruciating journey, both physically and emotionally. In the early 1950’s The New York Times “refused to publish an ad for a breast cancer support group, stating that it would not print the words ‘breast’ or ‘cancer.’”

Despite the mammogram being developed in 1969, it still hid behind a cloak of limited knowledge and a patient’s embarrassment. The routine was for a patient to be anesthetized for a biopsy. If the results were positive, a radical mastectomy was immediately performed while the patient was still under anesthesia.

The situation changed slightly in the early 1970’s when such well-knowns as Shirley Temple Black, Betty Ford and Happy Rockefeller revealed that they had indeed undergone breast cancer surgery.

Even so, treatments, developments, funding and awareness were limited. Breast cancer continued its charge. But in 1977 the disease picked the wrong person — a 33-year-old woman from Peoria, Illinois. After a three-year battle, the young woman died. But before Susan Goodman Komen succumbed to the disease, her feisty 30-year-old kid sister made a promise — she would “do everything possible to end the shame, pain, fear and hopelessness caused by this disease.”

That sister was Nancy Goodman Brinker, who would establish a world-changing program to bring breast cancer out of the closet with the goal of putting an end to it. In 1982, with the help of Nancy’s husband, the late Norman Brinker, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation was established.

Since its inception, Komen has “funded more than $920 million in research, more than $2 billion in medical care, community and provider education, and psychosocial support, serving millions in over 60 countries worldwide.”

In addition, millions of people and countless fundraising efforts including Baylor Health Care System Foundation’s Celebrating Women Luncheon program  and the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides of North Texas have risen to fuel the battle to rid the world of the disease.

Gigi Hill Lancaster*

Ruth Altshuler (File photo)

Linda Custard (File photo)

Gene Jones (File photo)

To commemorate the 35th anniversary of the founding of Susan G. Komen, Gigi Hill Lancaster, who lost her mother to breast cancer, is chairing the Susan G. Komen Anniversary Luncheon at Belo Mansion on Wednesday, September 27. Serving as honorary co-chairs are Ruth Altshuler, Linda Custard and Gene Jones.

Giuliana Rancic*

Unlike those days when they used to hold the annual Komen luncheon, where boxes of Kleenex abounded, this one will be an anniversary celebration “honoring those who – for decades – have helped Dallas-based Komen fund breast cancer research and programs that have saved millions on lives.” Emmy-winning TV personality/ entrepreneur/ breast cancer survivor Giuliana Rancic, who was just seven years old when “the promise” was made, will be the featured speaker.  

Since the luncheon is being held at Belo Mansion, seating will be limited, so book your place pronto.

Thank-you notes should be sent to Co-Presenters Bank of America, Highland Park Village/Al G. Hill Jr. and family, Lyda Hill and Alinda H. Wikert. 

* Photo provided by Susan G. Komen