Educating girls about breast cancer

November 27, 2005|By SUSAN REIMER

This is a "girls only" assembly at Baltimore's W.E.B. DuBois High School, and the reason is immediately clear. We are going to be talking about breasts.

Specifically breast cancer, and these young women are giggly as the women presenters take them through a lively description of how to examine their own breasts for lumps.

And they are quietly attentive when the presenters talk about girls as young as 14 finding cancerous lumps.

The women at the front of the room found lumps, too. Marsha Oakley and Barbara Abdullah are breast cancer survivors, and they volunteer for the Check It Out program run by Hadassah of Greater Baltimore.

They visit high schools in and around the city to teach young women more than simply how to do a thorough breast self-examination. The 14-year-old with breast cancer is extremely rare. So is the 20-year-old and even the 30-year-old. Breast cancer continues to be a disease of older women.

Oakley and Abdullah want these young girls to become comfortable with their own bodies and familiar enough with the landscape of their breasts to recognize "when there is something that shouldn't be there," as Oakley tells the girls.

Almost as important, they want these girls to go home and talk to their aunts, mothers, sisters and grandmothers about breast health. It is a way of reaching deep into a community - in this case an African-American community in which breast cancer continues to claim more than its share of victims.

"You aren't any more likely to get breast cancer than anyone else," Oakley tells these young women. "But you are more likely to die of it."

Oakley, now a nurse at the Hoffberger Breast Center at Mercy Medical Center, was diagnosed with breast cancer 19 years ago, as a young mother.

"I could do this every day," she says. She almost has. She has been volunteering in schools since Hadassah began this program a decade ago.

Abdullah works as a coordinator in community research at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins. She passes out cards to the girls, offering help getting free mammograms for women without insurance.

Like the instructions on breast self-exams, she hopes that these cards will go home to aunts, mothers, sisters and grandmothers.

"Did you see how many of the girls raised their hands when we asked if they knew somebody who died of breast cancer?" she asks. It was almost half the girls in the room.

"It is because the women in our community ignore the symptoms," says Abdullah, who is African-American.

It is a small group in the DuBois High School library, and the girls are comfortable asking questions.

Like breast cancer, ignorance does not discriminate. Oakley dismisses a rumor that was also rampant at a private girls school: Underwire bras don't cause breast cancer.

"I remember hearing this collective sigh when we told them it wasn't true," she said. "I have no idea how these rumors get started."

At DuBois, Oakley addresses another stubborn rumor: that exposing cancer to the air through surgery will cause it to spread.

"We can't seem to put that to rest either, but that is why so many women are afraid," she said.

Last year, the volunteers from Hadassah visited 35 schools in Baltimore County. This year, they are concentrating on city schools. The goal is to return to a school every couple of years in order to reach the next generation of high school girls.

And their aunts, mothers, sisters and grandmothers.

For information on Check It Out, a breast health awareness program, call Hadassah of Greater Baltimore at 410-484-9590 or the national office of Hadassah in New York at 212-303-8094.susan.reimer@baltsun.com

To hear an audio clip of this column and others, go to baltimoresun.com/reimer.

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