Andrea Ivory, founder and director of the Florida Breast Health Initiative, said the topic of breast cancer has been part of an open discussion in her family since she was 14.
So when, as a teenager, she discovered an abnormality in her left breast, she knew to seek treatment.
“I was 14 and distinctly remember the conversations,” Ivory said. “During that time, women like Minnie Ripperton were coming out of the closet about having the disease.”
Ivory, now 50, of Miami Lakes, said that everyone around her was saying, “check your breast,” although, at 14, she had no idea what that meant.
“But I did it anyway and I found something. I went to the doctor, and he removed a benign fibroid. From that point on, I was told that I had to really continue checking my breasts,” she said.
Ivory was recognized as a “CNN Hero’’ in May. The news network credited her with using mobile mammography vans to provide hundreds of free screenings in South Florida.
Ivory began her annual screenings at age 35, and later, in 2004, received a positive breast cancer diagnosis. It was then that her mission to found the breast health initiative became clear, she said.
“I never asked, ‘Why me?’ but instead asked, ‘What for?’ I knew the sickness was not until death and was for a purpose,” Ivory said. “Immediately after the diagnosis and all the treatments, I knew I wanted to make a difference.”
The Florida Breast Health Initiative (FBHI), which Ivory founded in 2005, focuses on the importance of breast health using a proactive, preventive approach against breast cancer. Its mission is to provide free breast health awareness, education, screening and referrals.
FBHI volunteers practice neighborhood door-to-door outreach to uninsured, underserved women, seeking to eradicate breast cancer as a life-threatening disease.
Charlene Thomas, who is one of Ivory’s regular volunteers, told CNN she considers herself living proof of the program’s impact. She had no insurance, and paid for her mammogram out of her own pocket. But when she needed a follow-up, she kept putting it off because it was so expensive.
“I had other priorities. It seems stupid now,’’ she told CNN. “But I didn't think anything was wrong with me.”
Finally, she asked Ivory for help, and FBHI paid for the screening. That led Thomas to a cancer diagnosis, and, ultimately, a mastectomy.
“The fact that I was diagnosed and am cancer free – there’s no way I would’ve done it without the Florida Breast Health Initiative,’’ Thomas told CNN.
She was back knocking on doors three weeks after surgery.
“Now, I feel more of a sense of urgency,’’ Thomas told the cable news network. “I’m knocking on doors trying to find myself.’’
After her own treatment, Ivory said that she began to think of the women who lacked awareness or did not have insurance.
“I wanted to make a difference in their lives,’’ she told the South Florida Times. “It was through obedience that I founded the Florida Breast Health Initiative.”
FBHI was initially funded by Ivory and her husband.
“There were no grants right away, only my vision,” she said.
In April 2006, Ivory, along with 30 volunteers, knocked on the doors of 100 homes in Miami Gardens.
The door-to-door concept was developed, Ivory explained, “simply because we want to go to the women and talk to them face to face. We need to take the message to them.”
The volunteers eventually knocked on 1,800 doors in the Miami Gardens area before taking their outreach to Hialeah and then Little Haiti.
In the organization’s second year, its volunteers knocked on 5,035 doors.
“All women are at risk,” Ivory said, “and we don’t look at color or culture or religion, just women. All women, regardless of their ability to pay, have a right to early detection of breast cancer.”
In April 2009, the outreach moved into Broward County and visited the city of West Park.
This fall, the outreach will visit South Miami.
“There’s a lot of ground to cover. We will visit every urban city that needs us,” Ivory said.
FBHI’s vision is to become a national organization, Ivory said.
“It was exciting to start up,” Ivory said about the first door-to-door outreach. “The first time I knocked on a door and was actually able to schedule an appointment for a mammogram, I was smitten; hooked. I knew I wanted to continue doing it. I didn’t know if it would work or how responsive women would accept us.”
Ivory said that when women open their doors, and understand that there are three women there to discuss breast cancer, “many are grateful.”
The volunteers introduce themselves and then provide every household that includes a woman with an informational package, Ivory said.
“We then ask a series of questions to determine whether a woman qualifies for one of our free mammograms, then schedules an appointment right then,’’ she said. “At the end of the campaign, we bring in the mobile mammography van to do the actual mammogram.”
Memorial Healthcare System in Hollywood donates the mammography mobile.
“For every 1,000 doors on which the volunteers knock, about 380 actually open, speak with us, receive the education and make appointments,” Ivory said.
She said she is open to speaking about her own diagnosis and treatment with the women she meets.
“I had fibrocystic breast; they were lumpy, so I really did not know what I was feeling,” she said.
But Ivory also said her doctor described her as “the poster child for early detection My cancer was found at the earliest stages, when the cancer is still contained in the breast duct and has not invaded the full breast.’’
She continued: “It was in my right breast, and my first experience with an abnormality was in my left. There were many benign tumors there [in the left breast].”
Ivory said that her first surgeon recommended a unilateral, or single, mastectomy.
“I could have had a lumpectomy, but I had a bilateral, or double, mastectomy. I chose it because that was the only treatment I needed and I would never need another mammogram.”
A lumpectomy is the removal of the affected tissue and a margin around it. This is followed by radiation and, in Ivory’s case, required five years of the drug tamoxifen.
“Early detection is key,” Ivory said, “because it provides women with the best prognosis and treatment options. There is no cure for breast cancer.”
For more information on Florida Breast Health Initiative, visit www.flbreasthealth.com or call 866-315-7711.
Photo by Elgin jones/SFT Staff. Andrea Ivory, a breast cancer survivor, encourages other women to get free breast cancer screenings.