Having the Talk -- About Breasts, That Is

Young Girls Want Their Moms to Talk to Them About Breast Health, Breast Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on December 15, 2009
From the WebMD Archives

Dec. 15, 2009 (San Antonio) -- Attention, moms! Your young daughters want to know more about normal breast development and breast cancer -- and they'd like to hear it from you.

A survey of more than 3,000 girls aged 8-18 suggests their breast development and breast cancer are "a big source of anxiety," says Marisa Weiss, MD, president and founder of

Nearly half wanted to participate in an assembly with their mothers to learn more about these topics, but 50% also indicated they were uneasy bringing up breast health and breast cancer with their mothers, the survey shows.

Nearly all of the mothers said they'd like to answer their daughter's questions, the survey shows, but most thought they should wait for their daughter to ask.

Don't, Weiss urges. It's up to moms to start the dialogue, she says.

1 in 4 Young Girls Worries She Has Breast Cancer

The findings build on a 2008 online survey showing that 26% of girls worry they may have breast cancer and 73% have a relative or close acquaintance with the disease.

"Puberty is occurring at younger and younger ages, with breast development starting at age 7, 8, 9. The changes are happening so fast that many young girls don't know what's happening to them and if it's normal," Weiss tells WebMD.

Add to that the fact that most people know someone who has had breast cancer and you have a recipe for anxiety, she says.

"Girls are examining their breasts anyway, and they don’t know if each change is normal [or if it could signal cancer]," Weiss says. "They can't distinguish between what's relevant and what's not."

Among the topics that should be discussed, Weiss says, are normal breast development, nipple hair, breast size, how to wear a bra, and how to handle teasing.

The girls and their moms offered many tips on how to start and maintain a healthy dialogue on these topics, Weiss says.

"Don't be overly reassuring," she tells moms. "Answer each question truthfully and ask your doctor if you don't know."

Also she suggests "making it fun. Take a trip to the mall to buy your daughter a bra and talk in the car on the way there and back," she says.

Other tips: Be open, chose a private place and time, and share experiences, Weiss says.

Less Than Half of Girls Talk About Breast Health With Their Moms

The new study involved 3,397 girls in middle and high schools who filled out an online survey prior to attending an in-school "Basic Breast Health Assembly Program" in 13 Philadelphia, Atlanta, Washington, and Los Angeles schools. A total of 1,067 adult female family members, mostly mothers, also completed a survey.

Among the findings, presented at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium:

  • 33% of girls had already learned about breast health and breast cancer in school.
  • 48% of girls wanted to attend the assembly program, and 93% of the adult female family members wanted their girls to participate.
  • 97% of the adults said they felt comfortable starting a conversation about breast health and breast cancer with their daughters, but only 43% of the girls report having the conversation.
  • Of the girls who talked to a parent, only 1% talked with their fathers.
  • 42% of girls said they have talked to a doctor about breast health. A total of 18% said they'd talked to a sister and 23% talked with a friend.

Having a discussion with your daughter will allay a lot of unfounded fears about breast cancer," says Jennifer K. Litton, MD, of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

"It's always been our experience that having an open conversation and using the word 'cancer' is important and much less scary than leaving children in the dark," she tells WebMD.

Litton says that she often has her breast cancer patients bring their daughters along for an office or hospital visit. "You might think it would make them sacred, but in fact what they are imagining is a lot worse than what they will see," she says.

Based on the survey results, Weiss and her 18-year-old daughter have written a book, called Taking Care of Your Girls:A Breast Health Guide for Girls, Teens, and In-Betweens, that covers all these topics and more.

WebMD Health News



32nd Annual San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, San Antonio, Dec. 9-13, 2009.

Marisa Weiss, MD, president and founder,

Jennifer K. Litton, MD, assistant professor, department of breast medical oncology, University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Houston.

© 2009 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.