It's hard to oppose cancer education. That is probably why the proposed Education and Awareness Requires Learning Young (EARLY) Act has 363 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives. The $45-million bill, which seeks "to increase public awareness regarding the threats posed by breast cancer to young women," is well-intentioned and emotionally appealing.
It is also a big mistake.
For starters, it targets women between the ages of 15 and 39. Fewer than 5% of breast cancers occur before age 40. According to national statistics, about one in 10,000 20-year-old women will die of breast cancer in the next 10 years (meaning that 9,999 will not). For context, a 70-year-old man has about the same risk of dying from breast cancer.
In addition to making young women more aware (and undoubtedly more worried) about breast cancer, the EARLY Act proposes to teach them how to lower their chances of developing breast cancer. This presents a fundamental problem because there are no proven strategies to do this. So what would proponents say should be taught?
One idea is to have women try to focus on reducing breast cancer risk factors within their control. But as Barnett Kramer, associate director for disease prevention at the National Institutes of Health, has pointed out, the most common risk factor for breast cancer (apart from older age and being a woman) is having children at an older age. In fact, risk starts to rise if a woman has not had her first full-term pregnancy by age 20. There is also some published evidence that, at least among younger women, increased body mass is associated with a lower breast cancer risk. It is hard to believe that the EARLY Act's sponsors would want to launch a public health campaign encouraging teens to become pregnant or gain weight.