Zora Brown was a champion of breast cancer awareness among African Americans.
She died Sunday, March 2, 2013 in Oklahoma City. She was 63.
Brown, a breast and ovarian cancer survivor, was the founder and chairperson of Cancer Awareness Program Services and the Breast Cancer Resource Committee, an organization dedicated to lowering the breast cancer mortality rate among African Americans.
She was a trustee for the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Foundation for the Prevention and Cure of Cancer.
“There is a hole in our hearts as we mourn the loss of Zora Brown, who despite her many years of dealing with two cancers and multiple relapses, maintained an amazing and courageous spirit that inspired everyone around her,” said Dr. Margaret Foti, chief executive officer of the Philadelphia-based AACR.
“Her life’s work as a cancer advocate has been extremely important in increasing public awareness about cancer, especially among women. Our lives have been enriched by knowing her. In her memory and honor, we will do our utmost to work even harder to expedite the prevention and cure of this disease that takes so many.”
At the end of her life, Brown was living with stage III ovarian cancer but she was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1981, at just 32 and then again in 1997. Her experience with cancer led her to devote her life as an advocate for women and for African-American women in particular, with breast and ovarian cancers.
In 2011, Brown shared her story in the AACR Cancer Progress Report 2011.
In June 2012, she testified at a U.S. Senate Cancer Coalition forum where she explained that cancer, which will strike one out of two men and one out of three women in their lifetimes, was a journey that began before she was born because of a family history and genetic predisposition.
“The AACR and cancer research community lost an amazing and gracious woman with the passing of Zora Brown. I cannot stress enough the importance of her work as an advocate for cancer research. She, along with other advocates, are the unsung heroes in fight against cancer,” said AACR President Frank McCormick, Ph.D., director of the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.
“Zora’s strength in battling her cancers and her passion for advocating for women with cancer were an inspiration to us all. She will be dearly missed but certainly never forgotten.”
Brown also served with distinction as a member of the board of trustees for the AACR Foundation for the Prevention and Cure of Cancer since 2008 where her voice and resolve as a cancer survivor and advocate were richly appreciated.
“We have just lost a great leader in the fight against cancer. In spite of her own challenges with cancer, she untiringly extended her hands to help others and was a fervent promoter of the prevention and cure of breast cancer,” said Dr. Yuet Wai Kan, AACR Foundation Board Chairman and professor of hematology, University of California, San Francisco.
“She was also a strong advocate for cancer research through congressional testimony. Her eloquence and clarity of purpose will be missed by all trustees of the AACR Foundation.”
After her first breast cancer diagnosis led to a mastectomy, Brown learned that cancer mortality rates for African-American women were continuing to increase while rates were decreasing for Caucasian women. Alarmed by these statistics, she formed the BCRC in 1989, an advocacy organization that vowed to lower the mortality rate among African-Americans by the end of this century.
Brown was born March 20, 1949. She graduated from Oklahoma State University in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Following this she obtained a job as secretary at the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers’ Association and then took a position with the Ford Motor Company, where she served for six years in the lobbying office.
In 1976, Brown took an administrative assistant’s post at the White House in a division concerned with women’s programs during the nationwide efforts to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. During this time she formed a lifelong friendship with First Lady Betty Ford. She continued her government service as director of Minority Enterprise at the Federal Communications Commission.
After founding BCRC, Brown began her role as an activist speaking in African-American churches with events that initially included Marilyn Quayle.
In the late 1980s, she partnered with the Revlon Company Foundation; Lilly Tartikoff, wife of the then-NBC president; Phylicia Rashad; and Jane Pauley to produce “Once a Year…For a Lifetime,” a documentary movie explaining the benefits of regular mammography that made its television debut on Nov. 16, 1990.
In 1991, President George Bush appointed her to the National Cancer Advisory Board (NCAB), which is an 18-member advisory body of outside experts whose primary task is to advise the secretary of Health and Human Services, the director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), and ultimately the president of the United States on a range of issues affecting the nation’s cancer program and, specifically, NCI operations. She served on the board until 1998. Due in part to Brown’s influence, Congress appropriated $500,000 for breast and cervical screening for low-income, uninsured, inner-city women.
As part of the BCRC, Brown organized the CAPS in 1992, to institute comprehensive educational and prevention programs focusing on cancers affecting women. In 1993, she established “Rise-Sister-Rise,” an all-African-American, free gathering on Saturday mornings in local venues that taught women the rules of healthy living and cancer prevention.
Brown has been recognized widely for her work in breast cancer awareness among minorities. In 1990, she was honored by Senator Fred Hollings of South Carolina, who invited her to become a board member of the Hollings Cancer Center at the Medical University of South Carolina.
She has also appeared in a Washington Post feature called “Portraits of the City,” which lauded her for her work.
In 1992, she received the Marilyn Trist Robinson Community Service Award from the Washington Association of Black Journalists. In the same year she received the Susan G. Komen Community Service Award and the Breast Cancer Award from the National Women’s Health Resource Center. In 1993, she received the Gretchen Post Award and was cited by the U.S. Senate in 1995.
“She was so full of wonderful life every time we interacted. These tragically too-early losses inspire us to redouble our endeavors against cancer,” said AACR Past President Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Ph.D., Nobel laureate and the Morris Herzstein professor in biology and physiology in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco.
Brown is survived by one sister, two brothers and other relatives and friends.