Public health messages impact on adolescent girls:  misperceptions and fears

Carolee Polek1, Thomas Hardie2

1University Of Delaware, 2Drexel University

Aims: Breast health recommendations change with expanding evidence including self-breast exam timing, mammography, and rates of alcohol consumption.  These have left women with lingering concerns regarding the reliability of public health messages which may be most impactful in adolescent women.  This study explores the ambient perceptions/misperceptions of adolescent girls and of breast health risks.  Methods:  A survey from a representative sample of 13 high schools obtained as part of a breast health program; 636 females ages 14 to 19.  Exploratory associations between misperceptions and selected demographics were completed. Results: Several non-intuitive perceptual errors were common which can enhance the risk for breast cancer over their life span. Greater than 50% believed injury to breast, and tanning breasts increased cancer risk; 50% thought ETOH/drug consumption did not affect cancer risk; 40% thought all lumps were breast cancer and tobacco use would be causative for developing breast cancer; 30% believed healthy weight and exercise had no impact on breast health/risks; 20% reported being scared by public health breast cancer messages. Further, our earlier work indicated critical misperceptions that have impact beyond an individual girl as 22% believed breast feeding increased cancer risk.   Conclusions: We must carefully consider the consequences of our public health messages.  It is essential our efforts continue to promote early detection/prevention; perhaps targeted programs to reduce misperceptions are warranted. The message for adolescents should emphasize an understanding of breast development/breast health.  Messages should assist them in recognizing what is normal for them, decrease fears and increase healthy lifestyles.