Barbara Brenner, who directed Breast Cancer Action, a San Francisco-based breast cancer awareness group, for 15 years, died May 10 at her home in San Francisco. She was 61.
Although she “beat the breast cancer odds,” as she once said, Ms. Brenner resigned her post in 2010 because of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative nerve disorder known as ALS.
As the neurological disease robbed Ms. Brenner of her voice, the fiercely outspoken activist still managed to be heard.
She corralled technology, speaking through a text-to-voice application on her iPad and blogging about the concerns of the seriously ill with frankness and wit. She called her blog Healthy Barbs.
Her journey from lawyer to full-time advocate began 20 years ago, after she was given a diagnosis of breast cancer and wrote an impassioned letter to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle about the need for breast cancer research.
Breast Cancer Action invited her to join its board, and she became the organization’s director in 1995. Ms. Brenner became a leading voice for greater focus on research into the causes of breast cancer.
“Barbara made things happen in the world of breast cancer,” Cindy Pearson, executive director of the National Women’s Health Network, said in a statement. “She was responsible for changing the way women thought about breast cancer, and moved people from awareness to activism.”
Under Ms. Brenner’s leadership, Breast Cancer Action “developed powerful campaigns that changed corporate behavior, clinical practice and research agendas,” Pearson said.
One high-profile campaign was “Think Before You Pink,” launched in 2002. It accused companies of using the pink ribbon as a marketing ploy and donating few, if any, profits to breast cancer causes.
Breast Cancer Action harshly criticized the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation in 2010 for partnering with KFC to sell pink buckets of fried chicken. The group countered with a “What the Cluck?” campaign that pointed out that weight gain boosts the risk of breast cancer after menopause.
Even among her fans, Ms. Brenner was known as a “piranha” and “the pit bull of breast cancer,” according to a 2007 profile in a Smith College publication. She received a bachelor’s degree in government from the school in 1973.
In recent years, Ms. Brenner also became an advocate for research into amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, which her older sister, Ruth, died of in 2006.
ALS is often known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which rankled Ms. Brenner. (Gehrig was a legendary baseball player who died of the disease in 1941.) Ms. Brenner said that as time passed, fewer people know who Gehrig was and that “the pictures of him don’t indicate anything about ALS.”
Barbara Ann Brenner was born Oct. 7, 1951, in Baltimore. By age 10, she was accompanying her librarian mother to civil rights marches.
At Smith College in Massachusetts, Ms. Brenner protested the Vietnam War. As a graduate student at Princeton University, she met Suzanne Lampert and dropped out to follow her to California. In addition to Lampert, her partner of 38 years, Ms. Brenner’s survivors include four brothers and a sister.
In 1981, Ms. Brenner earned a law degree from the University of California at Berkeley, according to Breast Cancer Action, and became a partner in a San Francisco law firm focusing on public policy and political litigation.
Ms. Brenner faced breast cancer twice, in 1993 and 1996, when she had a mastectomy.
While using her iPad to speak in 2011, Ms. Brenner said in a USA Today video: “If I focus constantly on the loss, I think I would end up in a pretty self-pitying place, and that so does not interest me. We can all do some things, even if they are not the things we could do before.”
On her list of “things I can still do” were play piano, listen to beautiful music, read, think, walk “as long as I do it slowly and mostly on flat surfaces,” and chop fruits and vegetables.