Women's Magazines Misrepresent Breast Cancer Risk
May 3, 2001 -- The stories show up in virtually all women's magazines -- young women battling breast cancer against the odds. But a new study finds that by always focusing on young women, these magazines are giving them a false sense of their breast cancer risk. And women over age 50 -- whose risk is greatest -- are often ignored by these publications.
"The media is presumably trying to present some useful information, but in the process may be adding to [young] women's worries," says lead author Wylie Burke, MD, PhD, professor and chair of medical history and ethics at the University of Washington in Seattle. Her study appears in the current issue of Effective Clinical Practice.
"Yet in Modern Maturity, one of the few magazines targeting older women, the ages of women profiled were not older," she tells WebMD. "There wasn't any emphasis that [breast cancer] is a concern for [the older woman]."
Burke's study evolved from research on genetic testing for breast cancer. "That led us to look at how women get information about breast cancer," she says. "We did a 'convenience sample' -- picked up some magazines from the newsstand for one month. We were just struck with how many young women were mentioned in these stories ... it looked like an overrepresentation."
In their current study, Burke and colleagues reviewed nearly 400 articles in the U.S. over a 4.5-year period from 1993 to 1997. All magazines reviewed had circulations of at least 500,000.
"What we found was a striking discrepancy between the age of the breast cancer cases discussed in the popular magazine articles compared to what the real risk is for young women," she tells WebMD.
Factual information about age as a risk factor was presented in only 14% of articles, and was often part of a vignette describing a woman -- often a young mother -- who had breast cancer.
Twenty-four articles (6%) addressed fears related to abandoning young children. These took the tone of: "My greatest concern when I learned I had cancer was for my daughter" and "Four years later, she is still haunted by the thought of her son growing up without her."
The effects of breast cancer diagnosis on a woman's marriage or dating relationships were explored in 10% of the articles. These included references to supportive partners.
In one story: "I told Flip we shouldn't get married, that he ought to find someone else. He wouldn't hear of it." Another: "Breast cancer is a harsh disease for anyone. For a young woman hoping to marry or start a family it can be especially cruel."
The typical age for women with breast cancer in the vignettes was 41 years. In 84% of those, women were diagnosed with breast cancer before age 50. In 47%, women were diagnosed before 40 years of age. Twenty-five of the women who were reported on were celebrities or otherwise newsworthy.