You’ve heard the phrase. You’ve worn the bracelets. You’ve seen the beautifully painted breast casts. It’s all Keep A Breast’s doing. The in-your-face breast cancer non-profit best known for its “I <3 BOOBIES” rubber bracelets and breast casts has been around since 2000 and has routinely reinvented itself to stay current in the fast-moving and always changing world of cancer. With close ties to the surf and skate culture as well as the art world, Keep A Breast, for the past 17 years, has been bringing breast cancer into the limelight — in a cool way that registers with young people.
Breast cancer, a disease that used to be associated solely with older women, has become more and more prevalent in younger people… and more and more aggressive. Keep A Breast breaks the taboo subject and brings it to the table, making it a conversation that’s easier to approach (and easier to live with when it happens to you).
With a mission to educate young people about the true risks of cancer, ways of living a healthy, non toxic lifestyle, and the importance of a “self-check” to ensure early detection, Keep A Breast has touched millions of people throughout the world and saved countless lives.
We recently caught up with founder, Shaney jo Darden (and even got our breasts casted!) to discuss KAB, breast cancer and what you can do to keep on loving those boobies.
What first got you interested in breast cancer prevention?
In 2000, my best friend Mona’s mother was experiencing a returned case of breast cancer, and another friend of ours — who was our age — had been recently diagnosed. I was looking for some way to give back and couldn’t find anything interesting that spoke to me. At the time Mona and I put together large art and fashion events called MODART and we thought, “Why not create an art show to raise awareness of breast cancer?” We asked all our artist friends to paint on breast casts and the initial incarnation of Keep A Breast (KAB) was born. In the beginning it was never my intention to start a non-profit. It just happened organically with the help of friends and supporters.
How did you go about starting a non-profit from the ground up? What were you doing before?
Everything I learned about starting and running a non-profit organization I learned on the job! I was lucky to have some great mentors to ask questions and get support from. In the early days, I had a full-time job as a denim designer working for brands like DC Shoes, Sole Technology and Toy Machine, all while running KAB in my free time from my garage. At the time, it was a side project and the focus was totally on the art of our breast casts. I casted all my friends, as well as many of the professional surfers and snowboarders at the time — and then had all the skate artists I knew paint them. We had exhibitions in New York, San Francisco, San Diego and Biarritz.
That must have been such an exciting time to see something you created as a side project get wings of its own and really start to take off. Where did the name Keep A Breast come from?
My friend, Howard Brown from STEWART + BROWN, came up with the name. I met Howard when he was working with ESPN and I was doing some freelance projects with them. The name Keep A Breast is a bit of a play on words. I wanted to provide information and resources so people can keep “abreast” of the latest in our world. And of course, after a surgery we know women can’t always keep their breasts, and our breast castings can offer them this opportunity. We are fun, playful and irreverent — and we want our name and brand to reflect that.
In what ways has KAB grown since the beginning?
Since our inception, KAB has made connections with younger generations about breast health through music, art, skate and surf culture. We meet young people where they are and we empower them with the education to help them be their own, best advocates. In many ways, we’re still the same now as when we started. Keep A Breast exists because we are called by our community to show up and do what we do. We still work with many of the same friends and supporters the way we always have. We have grown so much and I could not be more excited for the future. We have affiliate locations in Europe, Canada, Japan, Chile and Mexico. Now technology plays a huge role in getting our message out there, and through our Check Yourself! app we have reached young people in over 100 countries.
KAB has accomplished so much in the almost two decades it’s been around. What has been the most fulfilling thing that’s happened to the company since the start?
The most fulfilling thing is that we are able to empower women all over the world with breast health education and support through our app, breast cast exhibitions and survivor support program. It’s an insanely incredible feeling to travel to places all over the world where Keep A Breast is. I mean, here I am, I don’t speak the language, I’m not a local, I don’t know the customs, and yet something I created is totally in action, alive, living and growing. It’s amazing because KAB is a special thing that helps people. It’s not like I designed a computer chip that’s being sold everywhere. I created something that people really needed, and knowing there are supporters all over the world is so fulfilling.
The breast casts have become a symbol of sorts for women going through breast cancer. Tell me more about that project.
Our program Treasured Chest gives any woman diagnosed with breast cancer or who has tested positive for the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene an opportunity to document her body and feelings by turning her casted torso into a beautiful work of art. These unique pieces are one-of-a-kind plaster forms that combine sculpture, charity and artistry. This program is the foundation of KAB’s artistic approach to breast cancer support, dialogue and community building. The casting process is a safe haven of expression for young women diagnosed with breast cancer, and the final product is a starting point for continuing conversations. Breast casts are narratives that highlight the importance of confronting the challenges of breast cancer.
Where did the idea for the casts originally come from? And how does that make you feel personally to have created something that has so intimately affected so many women, before and after surgery?
The concept of having artists paint on breast casts was inspired by Frida Kahlo. She was confined to a cast after breaking her spinal column, ribs and pelvis, and I was inspired by the images of her painting her own cast. She made such beauty out of a painful situation.
Every body is beautiful and has a story to tell. Personally, it’s a massive honor to be able to cast someone, especially a cancer survivor.
These women have been through so much. Casting someone is a very intimate experience. Most of the time I’m meeting someone for the first time and they are standing naked in front of me rubbing baby oil on their boobies… or sans boobies! I start slow, take deep breaths, look them in the eye and get to work casting. I feel like they trust me to really see them. It’s a vulnerable situation for us both and a huge gift to me.
As someone who’s survived breast cancer and someone you have casted personally, I want to say firsthand, it was such an amazing, therapeutic experience, so thank you for doing what you do. Now spill the beans on what celebrity boobies you’ve casted!
Thank you! I’ve casted many famous boobies! Over the years I have casted actors, musicians, surfers, skaters, snowboarders, Olympians, politicians, brewers and burlesque performers. I’ve casted in every kind of location from posh hotels in Japan to lifeguard towers on the beach in the UK. I casted Pink at her house in LA and Kat Von D by the pool at the Chateau Marmont. We casted Katy Perry on The Vans Warped Tour before she was super famous. Her cast was one of the highest priced one’s we ever auctioned to support our programs.
That’s such a great way to get the word out. The I <3 BOOBIES bracelets have also been a really popular item, what was that like for you when they went viral? (We’re talking Bieber-level viral here!)
I could have never imagined that such a little thing could cause such a massive controversy. I lived in New York for a while, and was inspired seeing “I <3 NY” merchandise everywhere. At the time the “LIVESTRONG” bracelets were huge and everyone was wearing them. I thought that was a simple and wonderful way to get the message out to teens. I flipped the idea and created a wide and bright colored bracelet simply stating “I <3 BOOBIES”! Inside the bracelet our mantra is screen-printed: “Art. Education. Awareness. Action” along with our website. I felt it was a unique way to engage young people in a conversation about breast cancer. Then suddenly, the bracelets became a trend and schools across the country started banning them. Kids were getting suspended and we were all over the news! It was amazing and terrifying at the same time. Two girls even sued their school for their right to wear the bracelets and won! The case went all the way to the Supreme Court! They have been worn by millions of people, even celebs, like the Biebs. It is so amazing to know that so many people have not only worn our bracelets, but fought for the right to support and spread awareness about boobies and Keep A Breast!
What is your ultimate goal for KAB?
Our dream would be a world without breast cancer. It would be incredible if there was a cure out there available to all women. Science is amazing and there are massive advancements being made everyday, so we continue to have hope for a cure. Until then, we are staying strong on our path and commitment to prevention. We work hard to educate as many women as possible around the world about early detection to improve their chances of survival. Additionally, we continue to support survivors by bringing them healing experiences, such as a hosted spa day or retreat aimed at providing a break from everyday life in order to take some much needed time for themselves to rest and heal.
KAB donates to the breast cancer community in a variety of ways, namely through the Check Yourself! app, Treasured Chest and Non Toxic Revolution. Tell me how you’ve seen these programs create an impact.
Community impact can show itself in many forms. It could be a survivor casting her breasts before she has a double mastectomy and expressing all those complex emotions by preserving her form and making it into a work of art — ultimately helping her through the changes to come. It could look like a kid on Vans Warped Tour visiting our booth, downloading our app, and telling their friends and family about it. Then a year later, messaging us that their sister found a lump but caught it early because of our app and now she’s going to be just fine. It could be someone taking our “Deodorant Challenge,” breaking away from a toxic deodorant, and taking that first step to becoming their own health advocate. Ultimately, community impact looks like empowerment to us, giving people the knowledge to make choices and adopt healthy habits that positively change their lives.
Knowing what everyday products are toxic and becoming your own health advocate is such an important part of breast cancer education. Can you expand further about what you’re doing with Non Toxic Revolution?
When I realized that a breast cancer diagnosis was only 10 percent genetic and 90 percent environment, I knew there was a bigger conversation that needed to be had. I started Non Toxic Revolution (NTR) to open a direct dialogue about the food we eat, the products we use and the toxins we are exposed to that really increase our risk of breast cancer and many other diseases. This was in part inspired by BCF’s State of Evidence. NTR uses art, music and creative messaging to inform, educate and inspire young people to revolt against the dangers of toxic chemicals in their everyday environment and personal care products — especially those linked to the initiation of breast cancer. Moreover, it also teaches young people to become their own health advocates, both personally and through activism. The NTR program is both an informational resource and a call to action.
You are constantly surrounded by inspiring people and you inspire countless survivors. Who inspires you on a day-to-day basis?
One of the most inspiring people to me in my life’s path is Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia. He’s so many amazing things all rolled into one human. He has created an incredible model that is transparent and gives back. Additionally, KAB is a charity member of 1% For The Planet that Yvonne co-founded. KAB is a unique organization, and in looking to find models we could follow, I read Yvonne’s book, Let My People Go Surfing. It helped me shape the culture of Keep A Breast. On the daily however, it’s truly my team who inspires me. I have the most amazing group of passionate, unique, smart and talented people that work and volunteer for us. They have awesome ideas and work so hard to make my vision become a reality. They push me to be a better person because they are better people. They look out for me, and their ability to totally care for people they have never even met astounds me every day. They make me proud and I’m so honored to do this work beside them.
What is a typical day like for you?
I spend most of my time being awesome and taking care of myself! Ha! I wish! In truth, I have to challenge myself to take care of myself daily and walk the walk. I have to do yoga, be mindful and eat well to set a good example for my staff and our audience. I oversee our team globally and help support everyone with their program outreach and goals. Personally, I work on all our partnerships and collaborations daily; from the details of what they will be, to strategy and messaging.
What do you wish more people knew about breast cancer?
I wish more people were madly in love with themselves. Not their alter-ego-Instagram-self, but their real self. At KAB we always come from a place of love and want to inspire young people to be their own health advocates.
The truth is that women are being diagnosed younger and younger, and cancers are becoming more aggressive. With women in their 20’s and 30’s being diagnosed with breast cancer, you really can’t afford to wait to think about it until you’re in your 40’s or 50’s.
I want people to know that early detection saves lives and doing your monthly self-check is the best way to know what is normal and not normal for you. Since you’re probably reading this interview on your phone you can download the free app Check Yourself! right now and get right to it! Tell your BFF’S. I do!