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Teen Girls Fear Breast Cancer

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A study found that many teen girls worry about breast cancer and think their risk of breast cancer is higher than it really is. The teens also think their mothers and grandmothers have a high risk of breast cancer. The results were reported at the 2008 San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium. Chief Medical Officer Marisa Weiss and other staff members did the study as part of breast health assemblies for adolescent girls in Philadelphia and Atlanta high schools. Before the assemblies the girls answered questions about breast cancer.

The results:

  • 26% of the girls said that despite their age they feared developing breast cancer.
  • Some girls thought the signs of normal breast development were signs of breast cancer.
  • Most (73%) of the girls knew a woman diagnosed with breast cancer, often a friend's mother.
  • 3% of the girls had mothers diagnosed with breast cancer.
  • More than 3% of the girls thought breast cancer was common in teen girls. In reality, breast cancer is rarely diagnosed in adolescence and early adulthood.
  • 79% of the girls thought breast cancer was common among women their mothers' age, and most of the girls worried that their mothers would develop breast cancer.
  • 49% of the girls thought that breast cancer was common among women their grandmothers' age. In reality, average breast cancer risk over a woman's lifetime is about 12% -- about 1 in 8 women.

The girls believed that many common myths about breast cancer causes were true. Infection, drug use, stress, tanning, caffeine consumption, bumps or bruises to the breast, antiperspirant use, and breastfeeding were named as causes of breast cancer by some of the girls. These are all myths. NONE of these things are associated with a higher risk of breast cancer.

The girls were very aware of media stories on breast cancer. The researchers think media coverage may be contributing to the girls' fear and misconceptions. The researchers are concerned that the girls' fear and misconceptions could stop them from making healthy choices to keep their breast cancer risk as low as it can be.

Facts, reassurance, and a thorough discussion of breast health -- in school or at home -- are powerful tools that can replace girls' fears and misconceptions with knowledge and healthy choices. If you have teen girls in your life, they also may have the breast cancer fears and misconceptions found in this study. Consider starting a positive discussion about breast health with them. Breast cancer is not inevitable. As teens, they have an opportunity to adopt healthy diet and lifestyle choices for the rest of their lives to keep breast cancer risk as low as it can be.

Dr. Weiss and her daughter, Isabel, have written Taking Care of Your "Girls": A Breast Health Guide for Girls, Teens, and In-Betweens. In the book they explain breast development and breast health -- separating myth from fact and offering steps to improve breast health and reduce breast cancer risk over a lifetime. You can learn more about the book by visiting Taking Care of Your Girls.

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