In 2010 Zionna Hanson’s best friend was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 27, after doctors ignored her lump for six months, telling her she was too young for breast cancer.
“When I got the news I froze,” Zionna said. “I was 29, and she was 27. I thought breast cancer happens when you’re 40.”
She couldn’t believe she didn’t know women could get breast cancer at such a young age. Needing an outlet for her rage, Zionna founded Barbells for Boobs to raise awareness around early breast cancer detection for women under age 40.
Rallying the CrossFit community, Zionna held the first Barbells for Boobs event in a parking lot with a few other CrossFit affiliates. Sixty people came together to do the workout Grace, and Zionna took the $4,000 she raised and set up a 501(c)3.
Ten years later the nonprofit has raised $20 million to provide support and education for breast cancer survivors.
Zionna started the organization as an early detection agency, focusing on younger women and providing more than 50,000 procedures, but over the years she began seeing another problem. Doctors were telling breast cancer survivors not to exercise. They told women CrossFit is dangerous, they shouldn’t lift more than three pounds, and they’ll never do another push-up.
“I got angry about it,” Zionna said.
So in 2018 Barbells for Boobs shifted their focus, creating Resources After Diagnosis (RAD) to address the lack of education and resources surrounding the significant benefits of physical activity, specifically as it relates to women impacted by breast cancer.
“Now we are supporting almost 200 women every single day,” Zionna said, “and we provide on average about 1,000 resources a month to those women.”
Building a Virtual Community
When COVID-19 shut down gyms around the world, Barbells for Boobs spent two months restructuring their programs and switching to a virtual model. In order to gain credibility and change the guidelines around working out post diagnosis, their medical advisory board said they needed women to track their workouts. They wanted to find out if women were actually doing high intensity workouts and how often.
When looking for an app, Zionna knew it had to be easy and fun for women to log their workouts, she wanted the women to be able to connect with each other, and her coaches needed to easily communicate with the women.
Barbells for Boobs joined SugarWOD on July 1, 2020. First they created a rewards program for their community, giving a t-shirt to members who logged their first 50 workouts. Zionna said the app makes it easy for the Barbells for Boobs team to track these rewards, and the women automatically get an email when they earn their shirt.
Zionna said she loves that SugarWOD is so community driven.
“We have nine women who have logged more than 50 workouts, so it’s helping us from a data perspective,” Zionna said, “and hopefully this will help us with some case studies.”
SugarWOD helps Barbells for Boobs hold the women accountable, which Zionna says is the number one barrier to women finding time for workouts and taking care of themselves.
Barbells for Boobs also uses SugarWOD for all their community events, and Zionna said she loves having one place for all the Zoom links and events.
“We have a monthly wind down, a monthly virtual happy our, we do Sunday check-ins, we do yoga classes, so now we are pushing everyone to SugarWOD. The virtual calendar has really streamlined a lot of the confusion we were having. It’s super easy. When people ask (about events), I say, ‘Go to SugarWOD!’” Zionna said.
The Work Ahead
The new mission of Barbells for Boobs is to help breast cancer survivors get the resources they need, especially if they’re interested in remaining physically active post diagnosis.
“We provide support and education for physical activity. Barbells for Boobs is one big virtual CrossFit gym,” Zionna said.
Women in the RAD program have logged 1,529 workouts in SugarWOD since July 1, and Zionna said the app has been instrumental in building a vibrant and supportive online community.
“Now we provide women with a much more tight knit community, even if it is virtual,” Zionna said.
“We’re saving lives in more ways than early detection by giving women a community where they can grow and recover,” she said.
If you’re a breast cancer survivor (or a “pre-vivor” with the BRCA mutation) visit Barbells for Boobs’ Resources After Diagnosis page to apply for access to daily workouts, a RAD coach, virtual events, and a connection to like-minded women.