It all started with a t-shirt.
Now, the Middletown woman with the funny pink Fiat has a seat at the table with the World Health Organization.
Leigh Hurst, breast cancer survivor and founder of the Feel Your Boobies Foundation, in October posted on her LinkedIn page she was chosen to serve on the WHO’s Global Breast Cancer Initiative. Hurst’s involvement will focus on health promotion and education for early detection, which she said “aligns perfectly” with the foundation’s mission.
“It’s both humbling and gratifying to see the work the Foundation has done be recognized related to our use of media to promote breast health education,” Hurst posted. “My involvement in the WHO’s Global Breast Cancer initiative will help continue spreading awareness of breast cancer among young women and save lives while doing so.”
Hurst has also been chosen to serve on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advisory committee on breast cancer in young women.
Hurst was 33 when diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, a year after returning to Middletown, her hometown, to unplug from the big city where she worked on e-learning and helping small tech start-ups launch online product offerings.
She already knew about the lump on her breast when she moved back. She felt it on her own while getting dressed. Her doctors didn’t seem to notice it until Hurst placed their hand on the spot. They told her it was nothing to worry about.
Hurst was young, with no family history of breast cancer, and ran marathons.
Two years later a new doctor in Middletown advised her to get a mammogram. She had Stage 1 breast cancer.
The idea for Feel Your Boobies came while Hurst was undergoing treatment.
“I would joke around with my friends and be like ‘feel your boobs guys, that’s how I felt my lump. If these little boobs can get breast cancer you should feel yours, too,’” Hurst said.
She made a t-shirt saying “Feel Your Boobies” with a pink logo. She printed up about 100, launched a 1-page website, and shared it with friends from all the places she’d lived since leaving Middletown for college.
It went viral. People Hurst didn’t know were ordering t-shirts. She sold $30,000 of them within a few months, all folded and packed and shipped from her garage by her parents with help from friends.
At first she donated the money to other organizations involved in breast cancer. Watching what was happening, she realized the t-shirts were having a bigger impact. Young women the same age as Hurst when she was diagnosed were talking about breast cancer, and of paying more attention to their bodies.
The message was getting through to women in a way it never would in a doctor’s office where, as Hurst puts it, a doctor would recommend: “‘You really should do your self-breast exam’ and you are like, ‘ok, I should also floss my teeth every night, but I don’t.’”
“As good a work as these other organizations are doing they are not doing the work that got through to me,” she said. “Maybe we have our own mission. At that point I decided it was more than a t-shirt. It was really about message spreading using various types of media and the t-shirt was just the first form of media to carry the message out into the world.”
A new way to get the word out
She began using the t-shirt money to fund other ways to spread the Feel Your Boobies message, tapping into her professional skills employing technology and social media.
Her strategy was putting the message out where people don’t expect to see it – instead of traditional means like advertising a breast cancer event where 30 to 40 women show up, expecting to be told all about breast cancer.
By contrast, people don’t expect to see a car with Feel Your Boobies painted all over it. They laugh, take a picture, and text it to somebody else, and the message gets spread to a much wider audience.
Hurst said the message became a call to action that saves lives, like Holly Rose of Phoenix, who after seeing a Feel Your Boobies Facebook post later that day felt her breasts and found a lump.
Rose started her own nonprofit – Don’t Be A Chump Check For A Lump! – providing free wigs to women undergoing chemotherapy.
“It can feel thankless sometimes but when you get a testimonial like that from somebody and it comes through on a day when you really need it, it helps focus your attention and remind yourself that the hard work is worth it, because that person wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t worked so hard to get the message out,” Hurst said.
After creating Feel Your Boobies, Hurst kept her big city job, albeit remotely from Middletown. She eventually weaned herself off that full-time gig, however. Today, besides Feel Your Boobies, Hurst is a relationship manager for TrainingPros, a boutique staffing firm.
She married and had two children, Eli, now 10; and 9-year old Leo.
She lives in an old house. She re-charges by tearing out walls and doing most of the renovations herself. Now raising her boys as a single mom, Hurst is teaching Eli and Leo to use power tools.
Hurst said what makes Feel Your Boobies different is its focus on young women who aren’t thinking about breast cancer. Most other groups target older women already diagnosed with the disease.
“There really isn’t any other organization I’m aware of that promotes solely an educational message to the non-diagnosed, the general population of women under 40,” she said.
In 2020 Feel Your Boobies targeted African-American women throughout south central Pennsylvania
with its “Are You Doing It” campaign, which earned an Honorable Mention in the Hermes Creative Awards competition.
“Now we have an entire campaign that can easily be run in a different geographic region,” Hurst said. “We can take this and run it in Atlanta or anywhere else where we feel it is important to be placed. We just need the money to do it.”
Hurst spoke recently with a large pharmaceutical company about a national partnership between the company and Feel Your Boobies.
She hopes the WHO and CDC appointments can help open up similar opportunities for Feel Your Boobies with other companies the foundation has not worked with before.