A study done by Dr. Marisa Weiss, chief medical officer of Breastcancer.org, found that teen and pre-teen ("tween") girls have breast cancer fears and misunderstand the risk of breast cancer for themselves and their mothers. The results were presented at the 2009 ASCO Breast Cancer Symposium.
More than 3,000 girls, aged 8 to 18, from 13 schools in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., were asked about breast health and breast cancer fears at educational assemblies. About 66% of the girls reported that a close relative or friend had been diagnosed with breast cancer. This group included 5% whose mothers had been diagnosed.
About 33% of the girls said they already were worried about being diagnosed with breast cancer. In many cases, this worry was triggered by someone the girls knew being diagnosed or because the girls noticed a change or felt something in their own breast. This change was likely the result of normal breast development.
Many of the girls mistakenly thought that factors known NOT to increase breast cancer risk did increase risk, including infection, drug use, stress, tanning, caffeine, antiperspirants, or getting bumped or bruised in the breast area. A number of the girls thought that breastfeeding increased breast cancer risk, even though it does not.
More than 70% of the girls thought that mothers were most likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer, so their greatest fear was that their mother would be diagnosed.
Besides knowing someone diagnosed with breast cancer, it's likely that the large amount of breast cancer information on television and in magazines and other media contributed to the girls' fears and misunderstandings. The information, while intended to raise awareness of breast cancer and the importance of screening, can unintentionally frighten and misinform teens and tweens.
These results are troubling because girls who are misinformed about breast cancer may begin to view the disease as something that eventually will happen to them. These girls may see no reason to adopt healthy diet and lifestyle choices that can help keep their risk of breast cancer as low as it can be. Not understanding which factors actually contribute to breast cancer risk -- believing that breastfeeding causes breast cancer when it doesn't -- also could lead to less than optimal choices, such as not breastfeeding, based on that misunderstanding.
Parents and medical professionals are the best people to talk to teens and tweens about breast development, breast health, and breast cancer. Still, this study found that only 45% of the girls had talked to a parent and only 40% had talked to a doctor about normal breast development and breast cancer.
If you're the mother of a teen or tween girl, make time to talk to your daughter about her breasts, normal breast development, and the facts about breast cancer risk in mothers and daughters. Ask your daughter's doctor about breast health during your daughter's regular check-ups. This is especially important if you or someone your daughter knows has been diagnosed with breast cancer. If you've been diagnosed, it might help to have your doctor talk to your daughter about your diagnosis and what it means and doesn't mean for her. Talking to your daughter about breast health as well as diet and lifestyle choices she can make is the best way to keep your daughter's risk of breast cancer as low as it can be.