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Life Saver: Turning Breast Cancer into Her Calling

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Andrea Ivory is a woman on a mission. Four years ago she wanted to find her purpose in life. Little did she know it would be wrapped-up in the life-changing diagnosis of cancer. She turned what some would view as a death sentence into an opportunity to save lives.

In Miami, Florida, Ivory goes door-to-door the first three Saturdays of every month, five days out of a year, to get uninsured women to sign up for free mammograms. ESSENCE.com talked with the recent CNN Heroes nominee about what she thinks about the new mammogram guidelines, how her organization helps women who have positive screenings when getting tested, and why it is so important for her to travel to low-income communities.

ESSENCE.com: How old were you when you had your first mammogram?
ANDREA IVORY:
I had my mammogram at the age of 35 and every single year after because I had problems with my breast as a younger child. I had my first benign tumor removed at the age of 14, so I knew I was at risk. So I followed the guidelines and I had health insurance.

ESSENCE.com: What do you think about the new guidelines saying that women should get mammograms at the age of 50?
IVORY:
These new early detection guidelines that they are trying to enact make me crazy. I was diagnosed at the age of 45 and I celebrated being 5 years cancer-free on October 14th, 2009. What if I had waited until I was 50 to get my first mammogram, would I be talking to you? Would I be a CNN Hero? Would I be alive? (Laughs) So it's really crazy, and I'm very thankful that the American Cancer Society is holding firm in that they absolutely do not subscribe to the 50 year-old mammogram diagnostic.

ESSENCE.com: What made you want to start going door-to-door offering free mammograms?
IVORY:
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. Prior to that I had been on a quest to find my purpose in life, so I had been preparing myself, spiritually and mentally, for greatness. Just asking, "What can I do? What should I be doing with my life?" When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, it was never a question of "Why me?" Instead I just really asked, "What for?" I really did learn early on that my sickness was truly for a higher purpose. As a matter of fact, one of my doctors told me that I was the poster child for the benefit of early detection. That stuck with me. Throughout my treatment and recovery I thought about those women who didn't know the guidelines, who didn't know that they were at risk, and those women who did not have the resources to actually get screened or treated. I kind of had an epiphany. I cannot take credit for the mobile door-to-door outreach. It was a vision that just came. And, that's how The Florida Breast Health Initiative was born.

ESSENCE.com: Is the program only in Florida?
IVORY:
It's only in Florida now, but we will be a national organization soon. We are currently working with expansion consultants, and we have had so many requests from people to bring our initiative to their area, so we are very excited about that.

ESSENCE.com: When did the organization get started?
IVORY:
We founded the organization in 2005 and we did our very first outreach in April of 2006.

ESSENCE.com: How do you choose what areas in Florida need your help?
IVORY:
We literally go to neighborhoods that people forget about. We look at working class people with median incomes between $35,000 to $45,000, single-family homes. The people that we serve are holding down two or three jobs. They don't think about their health first. They think about meeting the mortgage payment, putting food on the table, and making sure the children can go to school. These are the people that we look to help--the people that fall between the cracks. We identify women who are 35 years-of-age or older who do not have health insurance. Our volunteers make appointments on the spot for free mammograms. At the end of the month we bring the Mobile Mammography van.

ESSENCE.com: Do you have a specific day of the month that you go door-to-door?
IVORY:
Our outreach months are February, March, April, September and October, the first three Saturdays of these months. We start at 8:30 AM and end at noon.

ESSENCE.com: Have you ever had an outreach patient who found out that they had cancer?
IVORY:
You know, it takes 1,000 mammograms to find cancer. We have been able to help detect breast cancer in four women and we're working on the detection in a possible fifth. We knocked on her door in September during our outreach campaign. It is not a happy day for us when we find somebody with cancer, but we want to make sure that we raise awareness and equip women with the tools they need so they can be cancer free.

ESSENCE.com
: Tell us how the screening works.
IVORY:
We give asymptomatic screening mammograms. If there's an abnormality they get called back to get diagnostic mammograms and ultra sounds. Most often we take care of their co-pays. If there's still some uncertainty, or an additional abnormality that is detected, they have to get a biopsy. It is truly a process unless your cancer is so advanced that they don't need to run all of those tests because it really is a matter of them being diagnosed. The screening process is not just a one shot deal. We stick with these women throughout their diagnosis and their treatment for as long as it they would like.
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