BU’s Baccalaureate Service Address by Nancy G. Brinker, Founder of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation

in Commencement, News Releases, University Affairs
May 14th, 2006

Contact: Phil Gloudemans, 617-353-6546 | philipg@bu.edu

Good morning, and thank you for such a warm welcome.

Thank you, Dr. Brown, for your kind introduction, and thank you – along with Fred Chicos and the Board of Trustees – for the invitation, indeed, the honor, of joining in your commencement celebrations today.

Reverends Neville, Olson and Young-Scaggs and the marvelous choir and quintet.

Dr. Campbell, administrators, faculty and staff.

Most of all, graduates, families and friends.

On this day of celebration, we pause in a moment of reflection – on our purpose and place in this world and on the people who have guided us to this day.

On this Mother’s Day, we pay special tribute to the mothers among us . . . for their love, which is uncompromising . . . their sacrifices, which are unyielding . . . and their support, which is unending. Although I suspect some of the financial support may be ending later today!

My own mother could not be here today – she is 86 years old and caring for my 90-year old father as he wages his own battle against cancer. But I thank my son, Eric, for being here, as he has been on every step of my breast cancer journey.

As I prepared my remarks, I asked Eric if he had any advice. He said, “Mom, just remember: the faculty want you to be substantive, the parents want you to be sentimental, but the students just want you to be short!”

Who would humble us, if not our children? Graduates, mothers, fathers, family and friends, congratulations to you all.

I must admit, there is a certain irony in my presence here today – addressing a university I could not have possibly been admitted to when I was your age. I was an undiagnosed learning disaster. My highest grade in math and science was a “C.” I hold the distinction of perhaps the lowest SAT scores in history.

And yet, I have been blessed in life to learn lessons not taught in any classroom or found in any textbook. My only sister and best friend, Susan Komen, was diagnosed with breast cancer thirty years ago this year.
Over the past three decades I’ve learned that the hard hand of experience can often be our greatest teacher.

And so, in my brief time with you this morning, I thought I might share a few of the simple lessons I’ve learned on my own journey – lessons that, I believe, are relevant no matter what your profession or path in life.

Live your passion. Life is too short to waste on pursuits you don’t care about. My sister was diagnosed when she was 33 years old. Three years later, she was gone. A few years later, I was diagnosed myself and planned my own funeral. Nothing concentrates the mind like facing your own mortality.

What will we do with the brief time we are granted on this Earth? As we heard in Ecclesiastes, “What gain have the workers from their toil?” Before Suzy was diagnosed, I toiled in several jobs. But only in her death did we both find our calling.

A few days before she died, she looked at me and said, “Nan, we’ve got to do something to help other women. I want you to do everything you can to find a cure for this disease. Promise me that you’ll try.”

I promised her, and at that moment I finally realized the difference between working in a job and being willing to die for a cause. That promise between two sisters became the passion of my life and the fabric that has sustained the Komen Foundation ever since.

What would you do with your life if you knew you only had a few years to live? Ours is a celebrity-obsessed, tabloid culture. But that which the spotlight shines upon is often irrelevant, and that which glitters brightest is often an illusion.

Pursue a path, not because it’s sexy or glamorous. Pursue it because, like walking on a tightrope, it gets your adrenaline running. Because it feels right in your heart. Listen to your heart. Feel what makes it stir. Find your passion – whether it’s raising the public consciousness or raising a family.

If it’s not your passion, don’t do it. But once you find your passion, pursue it with reckless abandon. Dedicate yourself to a cause you love, and as the old saying goes, you’ll never work a day in your life.

Let your passion, your pursuit of happiness, be more than the pursuit of material comforts. Of course, we must first provide for our families. But the measure of our success is far more than the balance in our bank accounts.

Some of the wealthiest people I know are also among the unhappiest people I have ever met. Looking back on their lives, they know they have done well — financially. But they have not done good — spiritually. They added vast value to their portfolios, but not to anyone else’s life.

In our lives, we are called upon to be stewards, to be agents of change, to make a difference. I learned this at an early age. [Stewardship/polio fundraiser story.]

This sense of stewardship reflected my family’s Jewish heritage: tzedakah – the importance of charity and righteous giving . . . and tikkun olam – that each of us could repair the world around us. In the words of Rabbi Hillel, “If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

We must be more than for ourselves. Resolve to repair the world around you, whether your neighborhood or your nation. Be the first to walk down a new path, rough and rocky though it may be. Your actions don’t have to be huge. They just have to be meaningful. Touch someone’s heart and you can truly change the world.

In pursuit of your passion, always persevere. My father used to tell Suzy and me that “with perseverance and courage you can overcome anything – except stupidity.” (Which I proved with my grades in math and science.)

I will admit, at first I was naïve. I thought that if we just held enough events, raised enough money and funded enough research, curing breast cancer would be a 10-year project. I never thought we would still be fighting for the cure 30 years later.

So when people ask me, “Aren’t you proud?” – of the $750 million you’ve raised for research, education and treatment; of the millions of survivors who are living longer and better than ever before?

And I say, “Of course, I am.” At the same time, I am forever conscious of the failures that made possible our success.

Failure has been a constant companion, especially in those first years when people didn’t want to hear the words “breast cancer.” I can’t tell you how many times we were dismissed or derided, hung up on, kicked out of boardrooms, had doors slammed in our face, and told that no one would ever show up for a Race for the Cure.

Lorraine Hansberry was right: “the thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which makes you lonely.”

Once you find your passion in life, don’t ever let it go – no matter how long it takes, no matter how many times you fail. Persist in the face of overwhelming odds. Tune out the detractors and the doubters. It may make you lonely at times, but persevere, and it will make you exceptional.

Finally, no matter how hard you persevere, there will come a moment when you are tested, when someone offers you an easy, shorter path around those high and inconvenient hills of Honesty, Integrity and Reputation. You’ll know when it happens. You’ll feel it in your gut.

But remember: your integrity is your single most valuable asset. Protect your reputation as if your very lives and livelihood depend on it – because they do.
Never trade on your reputation. Nothing, no dollar amount, is worth the trade.

Witness the corporate criminals sitting in prison cells today. They may someday get back their freedom, but they’ll never earn back their integrity. Because if you lose your integrity, no matter how big, how important or how successful you become, you’ll never be big enough or successful enough to earn it back.

Our world, as Tom Friedman likes to say, is flat. Technology allows all the perils and possibility of our age to flow more freely around the world than ever before.

So too in the world of health care, where patients in one corner of the world can see – and demand for themselves – treatments offered elsewhere.

As U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, I had the opportunity to promote breast cancer awareness and education in a society that still discussed the disease in whispers, as our country did 30 years ago.

Those of you who have been to Budapest know the beautiful Chain Bridge, spanning the Danube River. For one night, we called it the “Bridge of Health.”

I will never forget the sight – hundreds of Hungarian breast cancer survivors walking with their heads held high across that historic bridge, giving a face and a voice to a disease that was never discussed.

Those women and men had taken the first courageous steps toward changing their culture, the way their nation deals with that disease. As one woman told us afterwards, “Thank you. We weren’t sure such a huge event could be done in Hungary. Maybe we were not brave enough.”

Because those remarkable women were “brave enough,” others have come forward. And since then, the percentage of Hungarian women screened for breast cancer – and the number of lives that have been saved – has skyrocketed.

Each of us, in our own lives, in our own way, are challenged to be brave enough. And so, this morning, we ask for guidance and strength:

Let us be BRAVE ENOUGH to resist settling for material rewards and comforts and, instead, find the passion that gives our hearts fulfillment, our souls purpose and our lives meaning.

Let us be BRAVE ENOUGH to remember that we can and must be stewards, that we can repair the world.
Let us be BRAVE ENOUGH to persevere, to realize a vision that may seem invisible, to overcome obstacles that may seem insurmountable.

And let us be BRAVE ENOUGH to resist the inevitable temptations to Integrity and Reputation, knowing that our lives – as Steinbeck said – come down to “the hard, clean question: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well or ill?”

Graduates of Boston University, you have “done well.”

In your lives, may you always “do good.”

Many times I’ve been asked why I have dedicated my life to fulfilling the last request of my sister. My answer then reflects the passion, the stewardship, the perseverance and the integrity that I hope each and every one of you bring to your pursuits in life and to the people you love.

As the Books of Ruth quotes Naomi, we must never turn away from those we love: Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back from following you. For where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; Your people are my people, and your God my God; Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may God do to me, and so may He do more, If anything but death separates me from you.

Thank you, congratulations and good luck!

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