Zora Brown dies at 63; advocate for breast-cancer awareness

March 9, 2013

Zora Brown, a fourth-generation, three-time cancer survivor who championed breast-cancer awareness and research for African American women, died March 3 at a hospice facility in Oklahoma City. She was 63.

She had complications from ovarian cancer, said a niece, Monica Brissett.

Ms. Brown was diagnosed at age 32 with breast cancer, the same disease that struck her great-grandmother, grandmother, mother and three sisters.

Her experience inspired her to try to prevent similar suffering in other black families. In the 1980s she used her position as public relations officer at the Washington-based Broadcast Capital Fund, a nonprofit group that fostered minority media ownership, to produce televised public service announcements on breast cancer geared toward inner-city women.

She also helped produce a 30-minute film, “Once a Year . . . For a Lifetime,” which featured celebrities such as Phylicia Rashad from “The Cosby Show” reading diary excerpts from cancer patients.


Zora Brown, who has had breast cancer and also founded the breast cancer Resource Center in Washington, D.C. poses for a portrait at the George Washington University Hospital on Nov. 14, 1990. (Carol Guzy/The Washington Post)

In 1989 Ms. Brown organized the advocacy group Breast Cancer Resource Committee, dedicated to reducing breast cancer mortality rates amongst minorities, primarily African American women. She was inspired after attending a mammography summit on Capitol Hill, which included only a few black attendees.

“Black women are falling through the cracks,” she told the Washington Post in 1990. According to 2007 statistics by the American Cancer Society, death rates associated with breast cancer are 41 percent higher among African American women than white women.

Ms. Brown spoke out at churches, clinics and civic groups about the benefits of self-examination and mammograms, and she appeared on “The Joan Rivers Show” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

“The time has come for more African-American women to become empowered to take charge of their health,” Ms. Brown wrote in Delaware’s Cape Gazette newspaper in 1997. “We can no longer be immobilized by fear.”

In 1991 Ms. Brown became the first African American woman to serve on the National Cancer Advisory Board. She served on other national boards for cancer awareness and was the co-author of a 2003 book, “100 Questions and Answers About Breast Cancer.”

In 1993 Ms. Brown helped establish “Rise, Sister Rise,” a Washington-based breast-cancer survivor support group for African American women.

More than 2,000 women have gone through the group’s 16-week program.

“A mammogram hurts less than getting your hair frosted,” Ms. Brown told The Post in 1990. “It costs less than getting your hair done three times a year. And if you don’t have the surgery, then you’re asking to die.”

Elzora Mae Brown was born March 20, 1949, in Holdenville, Okla. She received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Oklahoma State University in 1969, then moved to the Washington area.

At 21 she was told she had precancerous conditions, and a doctor recommended surgery, considering her family history.

“I was a late bloomer,” Ms. Brown recalled to The Post. “I had just gotten breasts, and I didn’t want to lose them already.”

She maintained a strict macrobiotic diet and administered self-exams, but in 1981 she discovered a small lump in her left breast. She had a mastectomy.

In 1997 the cancer came back in her right breast. Mrs. Brown underwent a second mastectomy.

In 2005 she moved back to her home town to help care for her mother. That same year she received a diagnosis of ovarian cancer.

Her marriages to Brett Kramer, Tyrone Brown and Kenneth Rowland ended in divorce. Survivors include a sister and two brothers.

One of the ways Ms. Brown sought to remove the stigma attached to breast cancer was to show the scars from her mastectomies to other women.

“That doesn’t look so bad, does it?” she assured them. “And they agree.”