Posted on February 12, 2024

By Zoë Christopher, Operations Manager and Program Officer

She lived her life with determination, compassion, curiosity, and courage, and Belle Shayer did it all with elegance and grace. Born in Brooklyn, New York, she had polio at the age of six, moved to California at the age of twenty, was diagnosed with breast cancer twice, and lived to the age of ninety-three. She was a force to be reckoned with.

In the groundbreaking book, Breast Cancer: Society Shapes an Epidemic, Barbara Brenner, Breast Cancer Action’s first full-time executive director, wrote, “The evolution and the politics of the breast cancer movement reflect the birth and growth of a social movement born out of women’s recognition that being forced by social pressures to hide breast cancer meant that none of their needs would be met….support, effective treatments, and real prevention would come about only if they stepped out of their houses and united to satisfy their needs or to demand that others take steps to address them.” Belle didn’t just step out of the house. Along with Elenore Pred, Linda Reyes, and Susan Claymon, all dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis, they were like a locomotive on fire.

It was 1988, and since they weren’t getting the information and answers they needed about this disease, and since they weren’t interested in whining about that, they were determined to educate themselves, come hell or high water. Turning to the highly successful activist organization that was addressing the AIDS epidemic, ACT UP guided them into medical and political education. Gathering in living rooms, they formed study groups and brought in speakers with expertise. The size of the groups grew, and when they needed more space, they moved to a community center. In 1990, the four women stepped into more formal leadership roles, and as Treasurer, Belle did the research that would result in a 501(c)3 nonprofit determination. It must have felt like, after two years of labor, Breast Cancer Action was born.

Belle said that early on, the four friends (all of whom had dealt with a breast cancer diagnosis in the past or were in treatment for it at the time) recognized that “…it is not a personal tragedy, but an economic, political, systemic issue. The question was how were we going to get that point across to political leaders?” And they laid down the policy still in existence today, the strictest corporate contributions policy in the breast cancer movement. As treasurer, Belle knew it would take a lot of work to become financially stable without corporate money, but ethics and a determination to speak truth to power trumped profits. The policies and perspectives they insisted on adopting thirty-three years ago are firmly embedded in our core. They’re in the DNA of Breast Cancer Action.

Their efforts snowballed: they distributed a newsletter, sat on panels, gave speeches, followed legislative activity and reported back to their growing community. They were responsible for getting the American Association for the Advancement of Science to include the first symposium on the relationship between breast cancer and the environment, and it was attended by more participants than any other meeting at the conference that year. With her cohorts, Belle helped deliver 2.6 million signatures to President Clinton, resulting in the development and implementation of a national breast cancer strategy by his administration.

None of this was easy. Belle was married, she had children to raise and a family to manage. Nevertheless, she spoke at the Department of Defense, advocating for more research money for breast cancer. In 1991 in San Francisco, she helped organize the first Mother’s Day March for Breast Cancer Awareness, calling for more funding for research and primary prevention. More than 500 people attended that rally. Experience her passion and grace at that gathering by watching Belle’s speech on YouTube. Belle encouraged people to tell their legislators “…to find the money for breast cancer the way they did for heart disease, AIDS, and war.”

Over the years, she made time to serve on the Board of the National Breast Cancer Coalition and the Board of the State of California Women’s Health Council. And for many years, she continued to be active on the BCAction Board of Directors and our Speakers Bureau.

Most of us are weary with the upheaval, suffering, and loss of so much over these last few years. We’re living in exceedingly difficult times. But like Belle herself, her memorial brought some much-needed light to the darkness. She was loved by so many, from all walks of life. She had a generosity of spirit and a determined resilience that we all can learn from and keep alive. Belle helped to keep the fires lit until the next generation could get its footing in meaningful activism.

When her dear friend, Elenore Pred, died in the early Nineties, at her memorial Belle imagined Elenore saying to the gathering, “I’m proud of all of you and what you’ve accomplished but we must continue. We must remain in their faces until we are victorious.” At Belle’s memorial on January 14, 2024, I imagined Belle passing the torch with the same directive, but in addition, I could hear her voice at the Mother’s Day rally: “Don’t let your epitaph read She died without causing a scene!” Belle, you are missed but forever alive in our hearts. And we promise: we’ll make you proud too.

In the spirit of BCAction’s radical disruption and compassionate resistance, her family suggests if you want to make a donation to BCAction in Belle’s memory, please visit our donate page or

Belle with her son, David Shayer, and daughter, Liane Shayer, at our 2017 event, Food for Thought. 


December 20, 2023

In Loving Memory
Belle Shayer was the last living co-founder of Breast Cancer Action. She served on our original Board of Directors and stayed connected to our work for 30+ years until her passing as our only Emeritus Board Member. READ MORE

May 7, 2020

Conversation with Belle Shayer
We talked to her recently about how she first got involved with Breast Cancer Action, what the early years were like, and what makes her proudest about the organization she helped create 30 years ago. READ MORE

December 23, 2023

Belle Shayer 1991 Speaking at Breast Cancer Action Rally
See Belle Shayer's speech at the California state capitol. WATCH ON YOUTUBE