Women Who Wrote, and Will Write, History

Marie Curie. Amelia Earhart. Gertrude Ederle. Famous names in women's history, whose contributions to their fields have implications far beyond gender.

Today, with a resolution introduced by Congressman Elijah Cummings and supported by Susan G. Komen, we honor the life and legacy of another phenomenal woman - Henrietta Lacks - and the "immortal" cells which (unbeknownst to her) were collected for research purposes before she succumbed to an aggressive form of cervical cancer in 1951. Her cells, known as HeLa cells (for her initials), were essential in the development of the polio vaccine, as well as drugs for treating cancer, AIDS, leukemia, Parkinson's disease and more.

Lacks shows us the power of just one woman - one mother, daughter and friend - on the world.

It's an honor to celebrate these women and countless others this month - the 28th annual Women's History month - who uncompromisingly pursued their passions and dreams, often in the face of criticism, stereotypes and stigma.

They embody tenacity and fearlessness - qualities I've hoped to instill in my own daughters, and qualities I've witnessed first-hand many times as the leader of the world's largest breast cancer organization.

Each year in the U.S., more than 200,000 women come face to face with breast cancer for the first time. Their lives are changed forever as they prepare to tackle the harsh realities of the disease: treatment, side effects, questions about their families, finances and future - their new "normal."

But they are often the first to tell you that although breast cancer takes so much away, it can also bring forth inner strength, fueling them as they fight for themselves, loved ones, and future generations. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt described it well: "A woman is like a tea bag - you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water."

And today's women facing breast cancer can look to other bold individuals who helped shape the fight against breast cancer itself. A few examples:

First Lady Betty Ford, a candid and beloved woman who arrived at the White House during a time of post-Watergate distrust made headlines when she underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer in 1974. Unafraid to discuss her cancer and treatment, she raised the visibility of a disease that Americans had previously been reluctant to talk about.

In 1990, after 16 years investigating the interplay of genetics and cancer (and combating skepticism of many scientists at the time, who felt cancer was too complex to be linked to genetics), Mary-Claire King discovered that a single gene on chromosome 17, later known as BRCA1, was responsible for many breast and ovarian cancers.

Even in recent memory, the open conversation about breast cancer empowered Oscar-award winning actress Angelina Jolie to make personal, preventive health decisions which she chose to share with women and men worldwide. Her journey inspired others to inquire about their family history and genetic testing, and take control of their health (the "Jolie effect" as it's often called). As she said, "Knowledge is power."

But, as is so often the case, it's not always a famous name that writes history.

When Suzy Komen was diagnosed with breast cancer, misinformation and stigma were still widespread. People crossed the street when she was near, believing her cancer might be contagious. While she displayed strength until her last day, Suzy's greatest contribution to the world was a request she made of her sister and our organization's founder, Nancy Brinker, to do everything in her power to end breast cancer so that others would not have to suffer as she did.

This promise is now a global movement with millions of advocates, survivors and supporters united around one vision: a world without suffering or death from breast cancer.

Perhaps that's where our greatest potential lies: the courage of these women and others to imagine and create a better future.

I'm inspired to see today's young women share this eagerness. They are not waiting for a better future - they are seizing the moment. A 2011 report from the White House Council on Women and Girls found that, among adults 25-34, a higher proportion of women have college degrees than men. Additionally, women are more likely to have received a graduate education and are more likely to volunteer.

These young women will write history.

Maybe one of them will be the next Nobel Prize winner or sports icon. And perhaps one of these young women will bring us the next breakthrough in breast cancer treatment.

Or maybe one of these women will change the world without even knowing it, just as Henrietta Lacks did.

I hope you'll join me today and this month in celebrating not only the accomplishments of women, but the future that empowered women everywhere will create.