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Breast Cancer Health Center

Women's Magazines Misrepresent Breast Cancer Risk

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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.

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."

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