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Women's Magazines Misrepresent Breast Cancer Risk

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Only 2% of the vignettes described women in their 60s, and none profiled women in their 70s or older. By contrast, Burke says, 65% of breast cancer cases occur in women over age 60.

Previous studies have shown that "women overestimate their risk of breast cancer, and especially the likelihood it will occur early in life," says Burke. "It's possible this kind of media coverage promotes that kind of concern."

"Most worrisome," she tells WebMD, "is the possibility that women as they get older may think they can relax, that they don't have to worry about breast cancer. There has been evidence in the past 10 years that some women stop getting mammograms as they get older because they think they no longer need to. This kind of coverage can promote that misperception."

While the articles were factually correct, "the big-picture message was incorrect," says Burke. "It seems to me that responsible journalism should be getting the facts right but also making sure the big picture is right. Physicians and journalists need to talk with each other more ... make sure the public health message makes us all comfortable."

Burke's study represents "what we've observed informally," Joann Schellenbach, spokesperson for the American Cancer Society (ACS), tells WebMD. "The results of this study don't surprise me. We're very concerned.

"When I deal with journalists with these magazines, they're interested in finding patients for these stories, and they want women in the age group of their demographics," Schellenbach continues. "Invariably, their demographics are early 20s or earlier to a max of 35-40. Clearly it makes sense they want to write about people their readers can relate to."

Such stories are likely to have tragic overtones, Schellenbach tells WebMD, [because] "the women are young and invariably young children are involved. And they may be dealing with a hereditary form of breast cancer or a more virulent form of breast cancer."

"The increasing concern is that older women -- who don't have much media directed toward them -- tend to think that, 'If I've lived this long without getting it I'm not going to get it,' " says Schellenbach. Statistics show that women over 50 get fewer mammograms than do younger women, who are more inclined to see gynecologists regularly for birth control, she says.

The ACS has developed educational programs for older women, and tries to interest the media in stories that illustrate older women's health concerns.

"There just aren't many publications, TV, and radio geared to that age group, like there are for younger women," Schellenbach says.

Also, older women are often no longer cared for by gynecologists -- unless they have gynecological disorders -- so the doctors they tend to see are cardiologists, rheumatologists, and eye doctors, says Schellenbach.

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