ATLANTA — In a packed high school auditorium, teenage girls feel for cancerous lumps in soft fake breasts. Students at another school crowd into a bathroom to see a cancer survivor's reconstructed breast.
Though the risk of breast cancer is slim for teenagers, high schools are becoming a new arena for health officials who say that getting teenage girls into the habit of doing breast self-exams will help them detect any lumps later in life.
"Learning breast self-exams is a skill. The teenage years is a good time to learn to do it," said Joann Schellenbach, a spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society.
It also may be the only time to teach young girls collectively about breast cancer. If they don't go to a gynecologist or take a health class in college, there's little chance they'll learn about breast self-exams.
"It's quite possible it's the only point you have a captive audience," Schellenbach said.
Now a very small percentage--less than 10% nationwide--of girls are being taught in school about breast self-exams, she said.
Each girl is given a breast model with two lumps, a self-exam guide card to put in the shower and pamphlets about the disease. A nurse and a breast cancer survivor speak to the girls and answer their questions, which run the gamut from whether they can get breast cancer by being hit in the chest by a ball to whether the deadly disease is hereditary.
"I think they like being treated as adults. We treat this as a serious thing," said nurse Patricia Tripp, the breast health coordinator at Northside Hospital, which co-sponsors the seminars in metropolitan Atlanta.
"Girls need to see there is life after breast cancer and it's a good life after breast cancer."
Audra Doyle, a senior at Berkmar High School in Gwinnett County, said that before the seminar, most of her friends didn't take the need for self-exams seriously. They said, "Why now? I'm not 40, I don't need to get a mammogram," she said.
The talk was helpful to girls who "didn't have an idea of how to do an exam," she said.
The 18-year-old said she plans to begin examining herself. "It's better now than to be sorry later."
That's the whole point of the program, said Susan Schlansky, a breast cancer survivor from Atlanta. "If you get them to think about it at 18, 19, you don't have surprises at 45," she said.
With girls more physiologically mature and more sexually active, more schools are willing to include subjects like breast cancer in their health education programs, Schellenbach said.
"Young people are exposed a lot earlier to information that relates to sexuality and more personal stuff than previous generations," she said.
Northside Hospital has expanded its program to reach students at some colleges, including the University of Georgia, Emory University and Morris Brown College.
It was good timing for members of Sigma Delta Tau sorority at the University of Georgia. A few weeks after the seminar, a sorority sister was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy.
"With the breast cancer incident, another sister's mom dying of breast cancer and the talk, everybody's just learned how important it is," said Kim Schultz, a sophomore. "I think the program's great. There's no hurt in self breast exams."