Why Young Women Are Skipping Self-Breast Checks

3 min read

June 12, 2024 – Self-breast exams are an easy, painless, and safe way to detect changes that could be early signs of breast cancer. While rates of the disease are rising among younger women, education for how to perform these self-exams is lacking in the U.S. 

Health education classes in many Middle Eastern and African countries support breast health education, said Ofonime Effiong Johnson, MD, a doctor and professor in Nigeria who has studied the practice of self-exams. The classes show both male and female students how to perform a breast exam and when. But in the U.S., such classes are on the decline. In 2009, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended ending the practice of teaching teen girls in high school how to perform self-exams. The group, whose recommendations health care insurance companies typically follow, found the exams could cause mental health problems and lead to unnecessary biopsies and treatments. 

“For the teaching of [self-exams], there is moderate certainty that the harms outweigh the benefits,” the task force said at the time.

Research shows breast cancer rates have increased over the past 2 decades in women under 50, with the most aggressive forms showing up in those under age 40. 

Read on for more on the importance of performing self-breast exams. 

Health Classes Are Lacking

Studies within the U.S. that discuss breast health as a part of the curriculum in public schools are extremely dated; the most recent being 20 years ago. One study from 2001 revealed that roughly 66% of students had never performed a self-exam of their breasts. After 1 month of breast health education, 23% of students reported performing their self-exam monthly. Re-emphasizing breast health education in the health curricula in U.S. school systems could improve outcomes for early detections of breast cancer. Routine inspection and monitoring of the breasts, along with education on potential lifespan changes, can aid in the detection of complications and support healthy growth and development. 

Women Are Deterred from Performing Self-Exams

Breasts change drastically from the start of puberty until after the delivery of a first child. And while it may be difficult to not be alarmed about every change, it is imperative that a woman is confident in what is and isn’t normal. Many doctors have taken it upon themselves to sway women away from performing self-breast exams because they have not been professionally trained, and therefore, any lump or bump may give a false alarm.

With the many changes that the female breast undergoes in a lifetime, it’s imperative that women are instructed on how to best monitor their breasts according to their development.

Laura Linstroth, MD, a diagnostic radiology specialist at Saint Alphonsus Health Alliance in Boise, ID, said understanding what your breasts normally feel like is crucial so you can be aware when there are any changes. 

If a woman recognizes anything in her breast or underarm that is new to her, a health care provider should always be consulted so they may perform a thorough physical examination and potential imaging of the breasts to rule out cancer, she said. 

Women should be encouraged to become active participants in their health, especially with their breast health, experts say. Giving over the responsibility of monitoring and maintaining one’s breast health can give way to symptoms being missed.