Surf, Skate, Create, and …Advocate?

Keep-A-Breast educates and inspires young women with a compelling message about breast cancer prevention and a hip, take-charge attitude.

By Diana Price

Mixed in among the surf and skateboard gear retailers and thronged with crowds of young, hip women (and men), you might—almost—miss the fact that the tent you’ve entered at the event venue you’re checking out is in fact all about cancer. That is, until you spot the T-shirts for sale—which are emblazoned with a bright pink boobies! logo—and you start to read the signage and take in the fine print. It’s then that you realize you’re about to meet a very different kind of advocacy group.

Keep-A-Breast (KAB) was founded in 2000 in San Diego, California, by Shaney Jo Darden and Mona Mukherjea-Gehrig. The two friends were inspired to join the advocacy community when Mona’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, but they knew they wanted to take a fresh approach that would incorporate their interests and appeal specifically to young people.

With a target audience of women between the ages of 15 and 30, KAB has since developed a mission to “produce art events that increase breast cancer awareness among young people and benefit education, prevention, and treatment programs around the world.” The organization’s signature fundraising event has become its creation of one-of-a-kind plaster forms of the female torso, which are customized by internationally recognized artists and auctioned off, with proceeds benefiting such organizations as the Young Survival Coalition, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the Breast Cancer Fund, the Asha Kilgallen-McGee Fund, Kapiolani Breast Center, and Europa Donna.

Shaney Jo has made most of the plaster casts herself over the years—more than 1,000, she says—and each one is as unique as the story of the person who volunteers to take part. Some are celebrities (she has made casts of athletes, musicians, and actors and recently hosted an auction of casts of the world’s most famous burlesque performers), some are survivors in various stages of treatment and recovery, and some are women who chose to have casts made in honor of a loved one who is a survivor.

“Some of the most beautiful art pieces have been of women with only one breast,” says Shaney Jo, and all survivors express their gratitude at being able to be part of the effort. For many women, it becomes an empowering process: “I’ve made casts of many women who don’t like their breasts. After they actually see their cast, it changes the way they think and feel about their bodies. It’s an amazing thing to look at your body from this perspective—and to hold a cast of your own body in your own hands.”

Once the casts are made, they are shipped off to artists around the world—many of whom have been affected by breast cancer personally—who create their art on the surface. The results are truly incredible, and no two are the same. With images ranging from comic to abstract to representational, the plaster casts are returned for exhibit and sale, telling the stories of the hands that created them, exuding the power of the women whose forms they embody, and creating a powerful legacy of hope. It’s always touching, Shaney Jo says, to see the response at the exhibit from the women whose casts she made: “Opening night is so awesome—to see the faces of the women seeing their painted casts for the first time.”

In addition to being displayed at auction openings and other fundraising events, some of the forms travel around the world to the many surfing, skateboarding, and music venues where KAB gets out the word about cancer prevention through its education booth. With educational videos, live art, breast self-exam cards, and other healthy-living information on display, the booth imparts both art and education. But it’s the young people who come through the booth and take part in these events, Shaney Jo says, who remain the inspiration for everything KAB does: “All our programs go back to our mission, which is to eradicate breast cancer by exposing young people to methods of prevention, early detection, and support, through art events, educational programs, and fundraising efforts. We seek to increase breast cancer awareness among young people so they are better equipped to make choices and develop habits that will benefit their long-term health and well being.”

Erica Leite is one of the young people who has been affected by the KAB message—so much so that the 26-year-old is now the organization’s official ambassador, a volunteer position that has her traveling around the world with the KAB education booth to surf contests, skateboarding events, and music festivals. In her contact with the young audience, Erica says, she sees the impact that breast cancer has had on this group: “I am inspired every day by the young people who come to me and tell me their stories; they are so strong.”

Shaney Jo agrees and has also seen the need for support among this demographic: “Young women are getting breast cancer, and that is scary. There are also so many young people out there who have [family members] going through cancer. It’s scary for them, and through KAB they can find a way to support the ones they love in a way that is relevant to their lives.” The organization’s connections with youth culture allow it to get the young crowd’s attention and make sure they leave with an important message: “We’re providing them with tools to make a difference in their own life and the lives around them.”

For Shaney Jo—who has just recently seen KAB gain the funding to allow her to become the organization’s first paid employee—making a difference will remain a full-time job: “I have the overwhelming feeling that this is what I’m meant to be doing with my life. I’m honored every day to do this work.”

For more information about Keep-A-Breast, visit http://www.keep-a-breast.org.