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The Daily Tar Heel

For now, don’t fear the color pink

For some, the color pink is just plain terrifying.

That’s especially true in October – Breast Cancer Awareness Month. During this month, advocacy groups raise lots of money for vital cancer research and honor patients and survivors.

But this awareness campaign also comes with a side effect: It needlessly raises alarm among some young women.

One of the most important risk factors for breast cancer is age, but this message is being lost. Most magazine articles profile young breast cancer patients, and only 14 percent of articles mention that risks increase as women grow older, according to a study by the University of Washington.

Consequently, many women, especially young women, overestimate their risk of breast cancer.

“One of the real problems with breast cancer is how scared women are,” said Dr. Suzanne Fletcher, adjunct professor in the School of Medicine and former chairwoman of the National Cancer Institute International Workshop on Screening for Breast Cancer.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force says that breast self-exams can be unnecessary, even though many awareness campaigns continue to recommend them. Thus, increased awareness could be causing worry about breast cancer without improving the health of younger women.

While this seems counterintuitive, let’s use a straight-laced college student as an analogy. To prevent this honor student from being corrupted, her parents call every weekend to monitor her. When they hear that she’s at a party, they rush to Chapel Hill, burst in, and drag her out.

Parents resist such extreme actions because they know that most college kids face risks but turn out fine. So what would be the point of calling on Saturday nights if it’s just going to worry them?

Sure, parents might miss opportunities to “save” their child, but bad outcomes are too unlikely to warrant anxiety or intervention. The same is true of breast cancer.

Only 1.6 out of 100,000 women between ages 20 and 24 develop breast cancer in a four-year period, according to the National Cancer Institute. An 80-year-old man (that’s right – man) is five times as likely to develop breast cancer.

Moreover, breast self-exams do not save lives and no other screening tests are recommended for women in their 20s, Fletcher said. If a woman in her 20s notices a lump that persists for several weeks, Fletcher said she should see her doctor, though the mass is unlikely to be cancer.

Let us cheer the pink-heavy campaign for what it does well — honoring women affected by breast cancer and helping breast cancer bring in more research money than any other cancer.

But October is not called Breast Cancer Survivor or Fundraising Month — it is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It should strive to raise awareness in the right way.

Fletcher said this month should not raise fears but rather inspire young women to educate others. “They have an opportunity to talk to their mothers and their grandmothers about all of this,” Fletcher said, adding that screening mammography in older women saves lives.

A more focused campaign could prevent unnecessary worry among younger women and make pink a little less scary.

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