Breast Cancer Awareness: How Young Is Too Young?

Not everybody agrees when is the right time to start giving details.

Oct. 7, 2007 — -- For a growing number of young girls, pink may no longer be the color of Barbie but of breast cancer. Across the country, girls in their early teens and younger are running for the cure, sewing for the cure -- even attending tea parties promoting breast cancer awareness.

Dorothy Paterson conducts breast cancer workshops for Girl Scouts as young as seven or eight years old, in partnership with the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. A former Girl Scout leader who was diagnosed with breast cancer nine years ago, Paterson calls the onset of puberty "a perfect opportunity to have the first initial step discussion" with girls about breast health.

The idea is to arm girls with information -- to get them familiar with their own breasts so they can spot any troubling changes.

"[We] really have been actively teaching younger girls," Paterson says, "because we want them to be proactive about their health care and make life choices in their teen years about ways to reduce their risk for cancer."

At one of Paterson's workshops, many girls are taking the message to heart.

"I'm going to start checking myself a lot more," says Domenique Sam, age 15, "because I didn't really realize that kids my age could get it."

But other experts worry targeting girls that young could do more harm than good.

"We're just going to scare them to death," says Lillie Shockney, director of the Breast Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

Shockney conducts workshops called "Breastivals" on college campuses, which she says is a better time to introduce the topic.

"If we're trying to reach children that are 12, 13, 14, saying, 'You'd better be checking your breasts every month,' that implies you are at risk now for getting breast cancer, and that's not an appropriate message," she says. "Yes, women have been diagnosed as young as 20, but it's rare."

According to a new ABC News poll, women under 40 actually express greater concern about getting breast cancer than older women.

Shockney says she receives upwards of 200 e-mails a day, many from teenage girls who are worried they might have breast cancer. She says many girls find lumps in their breasts caused by hormonal changes -- lumps that are perfectly normal, but which can cause great anxiety.

For others, the concern has less to do with their own health than with the health of someone close to them. According to the ABC News poll, four in 10 women have had a close relative diagnosed with breast cancer. For young girls in particular, that can lead to lots of questions.

When Lourdes Hernandez was first diagnosed, her daughter Gabriella was just 4 years old. At the time, Lourdes just told her daughter: "Mommy has a bad bump."

She says she doesn't necessarily encourage Gabriella, now 16, to do self-exams -- just to be aware of her body and to speak up if something seems wrong.

Gabriella says she's learned "you can't let fear paralyze you." Her mother's experience has been a lesson in courage.

"I never thought of her as sick," she says. "She can overcome anything."