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Andrea Ivory

Founder and Executive Director, Women’s Breast & Heart Initiative

“I’ve learned that if you change the life of a woman, you change the life of the family, and ultimately you change the community, too.”

More than 90 percent of women in the U.S. who have risk factors for heart disease aren’t aware of this threat. Meanwhile, breast cancer strikes 1 in 8 women in their lifetime. The Women’s Breast & Heart Initiative brings information and preventive care about these risks directly to them, offering information and screenings. Educating these women helps saves their lives, while empowering them to make their families and communities healthier.

The problem I’m trying to solve

Low-income working women are too busy and overwhelmed to seek out lifesaving facts and preventive care. For both breast cancer and heart disease,  prevention and early treatment are crucial for survival. We target low-income neighborhoods in South Florida where women are disconnected from health information and quality care. Our trained volunteers knock on their doors — 1,800 when we started in 2005, now 11,000 every year — sharing education and prevention strategies. Then we hold a screening and wellness day in their community with mobile mammography vans, preventive screenings, smoking-cessation and nutrition sessions, and more.

The moment that sparked my passion

I was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer at 45 following an annual mammogram. As I was getting a second opinion about the best course of treatment, I came across other women who lacked the access and facts I had as a successful real-estate professional, and whose prognoses were much worse as a result. At the same time, I was on a quest to uncover my true calling. While reading The Purpose Driven Life, I was taken by the author’s admonition, “It’s not about you.” I knew right then I wanted to reach women who didn’t have my resources and help make a difference in their lives. My knowledge of demographics and census tract data from my real estate days enabled me to find them.

What I wish other people knew

The women we serve are the women who serve us every day. They bring meals to our table at our favorite restaurants, make the beds in our home and hotels, do our hair and nails, are the cashiers in our stores. These women are the wheels of society. It’s a privilege for us to take care of them because they spend so much of their time taking care of us.

Advice to others who want to make a difference

Adaptability and embracing ambiguity are keys to success. You’ve got to be flexible. For instance, our organization has had to suspend our door-to-door campaigns due to COVID-19. But our mission to educate starts when we teach early detection and prevention to our thousands of volunteers, many of whom are college students pursuing health care careers. This year we expanded that piece of it, even developing a certificate program for breast cancer and heart disease advocacy and adding a social media component to further spread the word. We’re now offering this in 14 colleges in Florida and around the country.

Why my approach is unique

Many organizations offer health fairs, but we bring our wellness information and screenings directly to at-risk women, because meeting people where they are sends the message, “ I’m here for you.” We’ve also partnered with great civic and corporate entities in the communities, including hospitals and medical partners that provide further testing and follow-up care.

Our focus on prevention has had a huge impact. Our breast and heart screenings have identified more than 200 problematic results. And the vast majority of women find our materials so valuable they share what they’ve learned with others. One woman we called a year after knocking on her door had not only lost 15 pounds, she had begun feeding her children healthier food and taking them out for regular walks. We’ve learned that if you change the life of a woman, you change the life of the family, and ultimately you change the community, too.