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Spotlight on Health, Check Your Boobies

Check Your Boobies. The name is not only memorable, it's also hard to say without a smile. And that's not an accident, according to Heike Malakoff, founder and head of the Mercer Island-based organization.

Malakoff, a 36-year-old mother of three, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002, when her twin sons were a year old. After completing her treatment, she began to develop the idea of a not-for-profit devoted to the prevention and early detection of breast cancer. And giving the organization a feel that was intentionally playful -- even fun -- felt crucial.

"When I informally surveyed women, I found that eight out of 10 don't check their breasts regularly. This surprised me, considering all the cultural awareness and fundraising we've seen in recent years around breast cancer. Awareness clearly hasn't led to action when it comes to early detection. This led me to think about ideas for a different approach."

Malakoff founded Check Your Boobies (CYB) with the mission of educating teen girls and women about breast health in a frank, fun, non-fear-based manner. The organization's goal is to help women know their breasts and what "normal" feels like for their bodies. Says Malakoff, "The idea is to demystify the breast, so that we are not afraid or embarrassed to touch our breasts and talk about them, and take action if we need to."

According to the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, women must check their breasts frequently enough to note changes in them. Checking them at the same time every month provides a baseline from which they can confidently note any significant changes and address them as early as possible with their doctor. Early detection is one of the most important variables determining treatment options and prognosis for breast cancer.

Breast self-exams are important for all women but are especially essential for those under age 40, since mammograms are not widely available for that age group and are typically less accurate due to the density of younger women's breasts.

While yearly mammograms are a key aspect of breast cancer screening for women over 40, self-exams also remain critical, as some cancers are found that way that don't show up through mammography.

Check Your Boobies hopes to change the way breast health information is delivered. Malakoff and the breast health educators she collaborates with offer CYB parties, in which they come to a gathering of women -- be it a birthday party, book club or cultural gathering. Once there, they provide education and Q&A on breast health and teach women to do breast exams properly, in a relaxed, non-medical environment.

Check Your Boobies offers these sessions free of charge to anybody who wants to host a Check Your Boobies party. Inviting CYB to your next female social gathering is a fun and non-threatening way to assist in making sure that potentially life-saving information reaches your friends and family.

Hip CYB gear such as T-shirts and hats are available for purchase on the Check Your Boobies Web site (www.checkyourboobies.org). All proceeds from product sales go back into the organization. On the site, you'll also find current information about breast health and breast cancer detection and the opportunity to register for free email reminders to -- what else? -- check your boobies.

Check Your Boobies is a Washington non-profit organization and a public charity exempt from federal income tax under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

Allison Dworkin is ParentMap's Special Projects Editor. She has two daughters, ages 6 and 3, and is expecting her third child in late May.

A fact from Check Your Boobies:

According to the American Cancer Society, 1 in 7 women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. And early detection makes a HUGE difference in survival. According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, up to 97 percent of women diagnosed with early stage breast cancer will survive five years after diagnosis. Increasing numbers of young women are being diagnosed at an earlier age.

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