When Teens Worry About Breast Cancer

I often receive emails from girls still in their teens, worried that they have breast cancer. And they're afraid to tell their mothers.

They most commonly report breast swelling and fullness, lumpiness, breast pain, nipple pain, and sometimes even nipple discharge. The notes that tug at my heart the most, though, are from girls who write that they let a boy "pet" them in the back seat of his car, and now the left breast feels tender, so it "must be breast cancer."

Needless to say, these girls are feeling guilt associated with having let a young man get to "second base," and I admit I'm often tempted to agree that heavy petting in the back seat of a car will cause breast cancer. It won't, of course, but I'm a mother, too!

But I restrain myself and email them the facts, beginning with statistics.

The possibility of a teen having breast cancer is extraordinarily low, and I hope that is a reassuring thing to read. There are circumstances when a teen has been diagnosed with breast cancer, but this is highly unusual and commonly accompanied by a strong genetic history of a mother or sister having been diagnosed with breast and/or ovarian cancer in their 20s. Even these circumstances are as extraordinary as hitting the lotto.

Teens and their reproductive systems go through some intense growth and development as puberty comes into full bloom and girls' breasts begin to develop and mature rapidly. Menstrual periods start to become more regular; hormone levels are running high. Lumps and bumps and pain and such are part of the process of maturing and developing. If a teen has started taking birth control pills, her breasts will go through additional changes as her body gets used to these additional hormones.

It's important for a teen to understand the warning signs of a breast health problem, however, and to begin checking her breasts regularly, starting as a junior or senior in high school. This sets her on the right path for good breast health habits throughout her life. She'll also gain a sense of control over her breast health if she?s taught that good lifestyle habits (like avoiding smoking and alcohol and exercising regularly) promote good breast and overall health.

There are circumstances in which a teen can develop a mass in her breast that does warrant further evaluation and, in some cases, surgery. These masses are commonly found to be fibroadenomas, which are benign tumors in the breast. Their cause is unknown -- and definitely not related to doing anything in the back of a car with a boy.

And if you think this is a concern of girls only, you'd be wrong. Even young men of high school age have emailed me, asking about their own breast health because they are experiencing pain or feeling a nodule underneath their nipple. They, too, worry that they are dealing with breast cancer.

So talk to your teens about the facts.

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