In December 2003, Heike Malakoff was a busy Mercer Island mom with three children younger than the age of 3. Five days after her 34th birthday, and just two weeks after her twin boys turned 1, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After completing six sessions of chemotherapy, followed by six weeks of radiation, she began taking Tamoxifen, a preventative drug taken for five years following treatment.
Malakoff’s cancer experience led her to dedicate her energy and time in educating other women about breast health. She started Check Your Boobies, the first nonprofit community health organization designed to teach every woman about breast health, breast cancer prevention and early breast cancer detection in a frank, fun and fear-free manner. Using her daughter Maia’s word for breasts was one way she hoped to replace the cold, clinical and scary feelings associated with breast self-exams and reframe it so women could joyfully embrace their breast health.
In the past few years, awareness of breast cancer has increased. But awareness hasn’t led to action. When asked, eight out of 10 women say they don’t perform regular monthly breast self-exams. The top two reasons women give for not doing their monthly self-exams are that they don’t know how to check their boobies properly and they are scared they might actually find something, so they just don’t do it. Check Your Boobies is dedicated to addressing both of these concerns.
The organization’s primary method for educating women is through its signature Check Your Boobies parties. A hostess invites the women she cares about — her friends, her family members, her colleagues — to join her at her home for a CYB party. Check Your Boobies provides a breast health instructor to teach the attendees the proper way to perform their breast self-exams, as well as provide information about healthy lifestyle choices that can decrease the odds of getting the disease. In a familiar, comfortable environment, with a group of girlfriends, all the information needed to help women become familiar with their breasts is provided so they feel empowered and encouraged to perform their breast exams frequently enough to note any changes. Heike believes that women are more apt to come and learn about breast cancer when they are among friends, are comfortable and are having fun.
In addition, a breast cancer survivor facilitates the Check Your Boobies party. She shares her story with the guests and in doing so, helps to eradicate some of the fear surrounding the disease. No one is a better advocate for early detection than a breast cancer survivor, and her inspirational story helps to underscore the message that breast cancer is not necessarily a death sentence, but rather, a manageable disease with more options when detected early.
Check Your Boobies is changing the way breast health information is delivered. This education needs to happen more than once a year in a doctor’s office. The goal of Check Your Boobies is to help women to see their breasts as breasts only. Check Your Boobies encourages women to know their body and their breasts. It works to demystify the breast so that women are not afraid or embarrassed to touch them and talk about them, and take action if necessary.
As Check Your Boobies moves into its third year, on average five Check Your Boobies parties per month are taking place in the greater Seattle area. To date, there have been more than 55 Check Your Boobies parties and other awareness events. Check Your Boobies also offers free monthly email reminders so that women remember to check their boobies once a month. Currently CYB sends more than 700 monthly email reminders.
Check Your Boobies has also formed a new partnership with Swedish Medical Center. The partnership provides resources and professional staff that otherwise would be difficult to access. Check Your Boobies classes are being offered at the medical center’s Ballard and Issaquah campuses every quarter. Swedish’s community health education and breast center divisions have been enthusiastic about promoting Check Your Boobies and taking a proactive role in educating women about breast health. Future plans include promoting the CYB monthly email reminders and parties to the various OB/GYN offices and breast care centers within the Swedish campuses.
Check Your Boobies is now focusing on taking its message to a more diverse group of women. Expanding into lower-income and ethnically diverse populations helps ensure that women from all walks of life have the benefit and power that knowledge about their bodies brings. CYB is currently working on expanding the Check Your Boobies concept into the Korean community in the greater Seattle area.
A recent survey conducted by Check Your Boobies found that 20 percent of women practiced regular monthly breast self-exams prior to attending a CYB party. After attending a party, that number increased to 96.1 percent. These gratifying results make CYB more determined than ever to be able to offer Check Your Boobies parties to all women.
Every woman is a perfect candidate to be a party host. Every woman has a friend she can’t imagine her life without. Mothers want to model healthy behavior choices to their kids, and daughters want to make sure their mothers know all they need to in terms of their health. A Check Your Boobies party is something you can do for yourself and for the women you care about.
Check Your Boobies is a ParentMap Giving Together partner. Its third annual fundraiser is being held on Oct. 20 at the Mercer Island Community Center. For more information about the event, to host a party, or to sign up for your free email reminder, please go to checkyourboobies.org.
Originally published in the October, 2007 print edition of ParentMap.