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Brown Championed Breast-Cancer Awareness

James Wright | 3/13/2013, 9:07 a.m.

The mayor of the District lamented the recent death of a woman who battled an insidious disease, yet fought on behalf of others, who neither had the strength nor the stamina to fight for themselves.

Zora Brown, a three-time cancer survivor and District resident, died on Sunday, March 3 of complications due to ovarian cancer. Brown was 63. She was renowned for her tireless advocacy on behalf of minorities, particularly black women.

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) remembered Brown as being "a pioneer in advocating for breast-cancer awareness, research, treatment and support within communities in the District and nationwide."

"I personally understand her journey with this disease that also has touched my family, and I applaud Zora for her more than 25 years of tireless advocacy in the face of her own battle with the disease," said Gray, 70. "Her outreach through churches in the District helped to educate residents about the need for regular medical care and let them know that a cancer diagnosis was not an automatic death sentence," he said.

A November 2012 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta stated that black women have a disproportionately higher breast cancer rate - 41 percent - which surpasses white women. However, the report also indicated that black women have a lower rate of incidences of breast cancer.

Brown, born in Holdenville, Okla., was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1981, at the age of 32, and again in 1997.

Previously published reports said that Brown was predisposed to breast and ovarian cancer because of a gene, BRCA1, which affected multiple generations of her family. When she died, she was living with Stage III ovarian cancer.

Brown had a mastectomy after her first diagnosis in 1981. She immediately set out to inform women about breast cancer, noting at that time, that the rates for white women were declining while black women's rates were increasing.

In 1989, Brown formed the Breast Cancer Resource Committee, in an effort to reduce breast cancer mortality rates among minorities, especially black women. Her work earned her an appointment by President George H.W. Bush to the National Cancer Advisory Board in 1991. She served on the board until 1998. Brown also formed the Cancer Awareness Program Services in 1992 and Rise Sister Rise, a breast-cancer survivor support group for black women in the District.

A 1969 graduate of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Okla., and a confidant of former first lady Betty Ford, who also had breast cancer, Brown spoke about the disease in the 1980s and 1990s in black churches at a time when addressing chronic illnesses in churches wasn't commonplace.

Dr. Margaret Foti, the chief executive officer of the American Association for Cancer Research in Philadelphia, said that Brown was a fighter and her work will not be forgotten.

"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," Foti said. "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."