American Association for Cancer Research

Zora Brown

In Memoriam: Zora Brown

The American Association for Cancer Research is deeply saddened by the loss of Zora Brown, a trustee for the AACR Foundation for the Prevention and Cure of Cancer. Brown was a pioneering advocate for cancer research and breast cancer awareness among minorities. Brown, who died on March 3, 2013, at the age of 63, was also the founder and chairperson of Cancer Awareness Program Services (CAPS) and the Breast Cancer Resource Committee (BCRC), an organization dedicated to lowering the breast cancer mortality rate among African-Americans.

“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 Margaret Foti, Ph.D., M.D. (h.c.), chief executive officer of the 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 the lives of so many.”

Born on March 20, 1949, in Holdenville, Okla., Brown was predisposed to breast and ovarian cancers: A genetic mutation of the BRCA1 gene has affected five generations of her family. Brown was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1981, at the age of 32, and again in 1997. At the end of her life, Brown was living with stage III ovarian cancer. Her experience with cancer led her to devote her life to being an advocate for women, and for African-American women in particular, with breast and ovarian cancers.

Brown was facing her third bout with cancer — ovarian cancer — when she shared her story with the world in the AACR Cancer Progress Report 2011. She was able to tell her story of survival from ovarian and breast cancers and shed light on the importance of cancer research. Brown saw her genetic predisposition to cancer not as a curse, but as a source of knowledge and inspiration to help other survivors and address the challenges of cancer. She felt that the women of her family are a living testament to the power of scientific research. In 2012, Brown testified at a U.S. Senate Cancer Coalition forum where she described the journey that began before she was born.

“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 the 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.”

After her first diagnosis, which led to a mastectomy, Brown learned that the cancer mortality rates for African-American women were increasing even though rates were decreasing among white women. She formed the Breast Cancer Resource Committee in 1989 as a response to these alarming statistics; the advocacy organization vowed to lower mortality rates among African-American women. In addition to founding the BCRC, Brown took on a role as an advocate by speaking in African-American churches.

In 1991, President George H.W. Bush appointed Brown to the National Cancer Advisory Board, on which she served until 1998. Brown’s influence helped push Congress to appropriate $500,000 for breast and cervical cancer screenings for low-income, uninsured, inner-city women. In 1992, she organized CAPS as part of the BCRC to institute comprehensive educational and prevention programs focusing on cancers affecting women.

“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 Yuet Wai Kan, M.D., D.Sc., AACR Foundation Board chairman and professor of hematology at the 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.”

Brown 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 was an administrative assistant at the White House in a division concerned with women’s programs during the nationwide effort 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.

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. In 1992, she received the Marilyn Trist Robinson Community Service Award from the Washington Association of Black Journalists. In addition, 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.