By Alex Tresniowski
October 29, 2001 12:00 PM

In the awful stillness of a hospital room, Nancy Brinker was changed. She spent long days and longer nights sitting in a chair beside the bed where her older sister Susan lay wasting away from breast cancer. “It was terrible watching her,” says Brinker, still visibly moved two decades later. “Suzy was so beautiful, so kind and caring. Even when she was dying, she sat with children with cancer and encouraged them about life.” On Aug. 4, 1980, the sisters had one final heartfelt talk before Susan Goodman Komen died at the age of 36. “Suzy asked if I could please help fight this disease,” says Brinker, now 54, “so that other families don’t have to hurt the way ours did.”

Brinker, who would triumph in her own battle over the disease four years later, has kept her promise in extraordinary fashion, rising from the devastation of her sister’s death to become one of the nation’s most influential crusaders in the fight against breast cancer. She is the driving force behind the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, which she founded in 1982 and which has rallied Oprah Winfrey, Rosie O’Donnell and other celebrities to raise funds and awareness. Best known for its sponsorship of the Race for the Cure, an annual nationwide series of 5-kilometer runs, the foundation has raised some $400 million since its inception and has helped support 583 research projects around the world. “She called the public to battle against breast cancer long before it was popular to do so,” says Dr. Larry Norton, president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. “She has the gift of inclusiveness, of uniting diverse types for a common cause.”

It was that kind of skill that led to Brinker’s latest mission. In May President Bush nominated her to be the new U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Hungary. During her term she will relinquish her duties with the foundation and concentrate on using her corporate contacts to entice American business to the Central European nation. “I have a passion for creating more jobs and bringing better health care to that part of the world,” says the recently divorced Brinker, who began her work in Budapest just 15 days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “It was a thrill to be in the parliament when they granted the use of their airspace and airfields in any U.S. action,” she says. “We are living in different times now, and it is an incredible challenge.”

So far, she has been up to the task. “Everyone has been very impressed,” says Hungary’s ambassador to the U.S., Geza Jeszenszky. “They can really feel her drive and commitment.” Janof Avar, a columnist for the Hungarian newspaper Magyar Hirlap, met Brinker at a recent dinner in her honor and says, “She is an amateur in diplomacy, but it is clear that she is very keen to learn her new job as quickly as possible. She is not overconfident or pompous.” President Bush, a friend since he met Brinker in 1980, says her work with the foundation makes her an excellent choice for the job. “She is a leader,” he says. “Her efforts in the U.S. and around the world have saved countless lives.”

Brinker has never been one to wilt in trying situations. The younger of two children born in Peoria, Ill., to Marvin Goodman, now 85 and a real estate developer, and his wife, Eleanor, 81, a longtime activist and fund-raiser, she showed a strong backbone as early as the first grade, when a school crossing guard scolded her for being too young to ride a bicycle. “The guard was being mean, and Nancy told him off,” says Eleanor. “I got the call about how she wasn’t listening, but the guard was wrong and my daughter proved that point. And she continued to ride her bike.”

Nancy and Suzy, three years older, were raised in an affluent neighborhood and rarely wanted for anything. “But we were always taught that sharing and public service were as important as anything else,” says Brinker, who remembers her mother having them bring clothing to school for less fortunate students. She was six when she found out a playmate had polio, prompting the sisters to host a fundraiser, a song-and-dance revue featuring neighborhood kids. “We raised $64,” Brinker recalls. “That was our first taste of community service, and we loved it.”

At the University of Illinois, where she earned a degree in liberal arts in 1968, Brinker skipped the love-ins to serve on the student council. As a freshman she persuaded the school’s dean to extend the curfew for female students (at the time, men had no curfew). “The dean told me, ‘I have to admire her. She’s tenacious,’ ” says Eleanor. “He wouldn’t see her right away, but she outlasted him and she won.”

Fond of horses and Texas culture, Brinker moved to Dallas after college. She took a job with Neiman Marcus, working in the couture department and then managing some of the chain’s boutiques in upscale hotels. In the early ’70s she married Neiman Marcus executive Robert Leitstein, and in 1975 she gave birth to her only child, Eric, now 26 and a marketing executive for JetBlue. It was in 1977 that Brinker received a chilling phone call from Suzy, then a model in Peoria. Married to Stan Komen, a liquor-store owner, and the mother of Scott, then 7, and Stephanie, 3, Suzy was calling to say she had found a lump in her breast.

Terrified by memories of their great aunt, a breast cancer victim who had been horribly scarred by radiation treatments in 1956, Komen had a mastectomy but initially refused to undergo chemotherapy or radiation. Within a year her cancer had spread. At her sister’s insistence, Komen checked into Houston’s renowned M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and endured eight more operations and aggressive chemo and radiation treatments over two years. But, says Brinker, “it was too late.” Komen’s death left Brinker “terribly crushed,” says Linda Washkuhn, 58, a family friend. “She was so hurt, and she didn’t want other women to have to experience this disease.”

Divorced from Leitstein in 1978 and raising her son on her own, Brinker left Neiman Marcus to work briefly as a radio talk show host while continuing to volunteer her time with several charities. It was at a November 1980 fundraiser that she met Norman Brinker, then 49, a Dallas restaurant magnate and divorced father of five. “We had a lot in common, like our love of horses and politics,” says Brinker, who married the wealthy businessman, 16 years her senior, on Valentine’s Day 1981. “From the beginning,” she says, “I told him about my promise to my sister.” Her husband, who was widowed in 1969 with the death of tennis star Maureen Connolly from ovarian cancer, gave her some seed money but asked that she not pester his rich friends for funds. “Naturally,” says Brinker, “that was the first thing I did.”

Initially many potential sponsors doubted she could compete for funds with established charities. Undeterred, Brinker and her band of volunteers labored long hours to launch the foundation. “She sat me down and had me start stuffing envelopes,” remembers Susan Komen’s daughter Stephanie, now 27 and a lobbyist for a health-care trade group. The foundation, she says, “was a wonderful way for people to heal and sort of gave me a way to heal too.”

A fearless polo player, Brinker held her first event, a women’s polo match, in 1982. It was rained out. The following year she held the fund-raiser indoors and raked in enough to fund two grants totaling $30,000. “Then,” she says, “we got aggressive.” That year, she dreamed up the Race for the Cure, which began with 800 men and women in pink T-shirts running through the streets of Dallas. “I wanted a positive name and image to celebrate survivorship instead of the negative sound of cancer,” Brinker says. This year, the race boasted 1.3 million participants in 112 events.

It was just as Brinker was making good on her promise to her sister that she made a frightening discovery. In bed one cold night in January 1984, Brinker felt a large mass in her left breast as she pulled the comforter over her body. She sprang up screaming but soon turned her fear into controlled anger. “I was scared that I would lose my life,” she says, “but I took charge of my treatments. I called the shots.” Other lumps she had felt over the years had proven benign, but this one was malignant. “My parents told me Mom would feel sick for a while, but that she would get better,” says son Eric, who was 9 at the time. “I believed that, and it was true.” Brinker underwent a mastectomy and four rounds of chemotherapy over six months, and her cancer has not returned.

She transformed her experience into one of her most important initiatives—to destigmatize breast cancer and free victims from feelings of shame. She had recoiled at the way people spoke in hushed voices when discussing the disease and at how her fellow patients at M.D. Anderson shuffled around in despair. After chemotherapy Brinker “put a hat on her head and marched around and said to these people who were sitting there in these dreadful wigs, ‘Don’t be ashamed. You have a problem and you can conquer it,’ ” remembers Brinker’s mother, Eleanor. “She lifted their spirits at a time they desperately needed it.”

After that she was determined to change the way the disease was viewed. “She showed cancer is not a nameless, faceless entity,” says Dr. Gabriel Hortobagyi, chairman of the department of breast medical oncology at M.D. Anderson. “She got involved in advocacy on the political level.” It surely helped that Brinker was a full-blown workaholic. To this day she “runs around like a mad lady,” says her niece Stephanie. “There’s not a moment when she’s not doing six things at once—applying makeup, giving life advice, solving someone’s problems.”

Last September Brinker split from her husband, Norman, who had to slow down his lifestyle after suffering a severe head injury during a 1993 polo match. “We just decided to go our own ways,” she explains. Brinker dated a few times but discovered that “men find me intimidating because I am a strong, goal-oriented woman,” she says. “One well-known CEO I was dating just got married and didn’t even feel it was necessary to tell me. I guess he felt I’m a tough girl who didn’t care. Well, I did care.”

Today Brinker is simply too busy to date at all. Instead of her antiques-filled, 7,000-sq.-ft. house in Palm Beach, Fla., her home for the next three years is the ambassador’s residence in Budapest. An early supporter of George W. Bush, Brinker, some of whose relatives died in the Holocaust, expressed an interest in the Hungarian post, which pays around $125,000 a year. Accustomed to managing large groups of people, she will now oversee a staff of 440.

Closest to her heart, however, remains her work in the fight against breast cancer. This June, Brinker was honored at a Race for the Cure event held at the White House and attended by more than 200 breast cancer survivors. “The President had tears in his eyes when he spoke of how far we have come,” she recalls, her own tears welling up when she reflects on the inspiration for it all. While Brinker has more than kept the promise she made long ago to her sister Suzy—and helped to save thousands of lives along the way—sometimes even that is not enough. “I still cry every day, and it has been 21 years,” Brinker says. “I would give up all of my successes to have her back for one day.”

Alex Tresniowski

Linda Marx in Palm Beach, Linda Trischitta in Miami, Eileen Finan in London, Bob Stewart in Houston and Lauren Commander in Chicago