We need to teach our daughters how to conduct breast self-exams

PERSPECTIVE | We don’t talk enough about early detection

(Illustration by Fleur Sciortino)

When parents think about all of the things they’ll get to experience with their daughters, I know close to none are thinking about talking to their young girls about breast self-exams. While it’s not the sexiest topic, not doing so is a gigantic mistake, and it’s one we need to fix going forward when it comes to talking to the next generation about their health.

Often when young women start puberty, they turn their attention to dealing with their first period, staring at those initial strands of pubic hair and comparing the size of their breasts with friends. Much of this time in a young girl’s life is unfortunately (and wrongfully) filled with shame and embarrassment. Periods are portrayed as gross, pubic hair is seen as something to remove and breasts are sexualized immediately. Because of this, many preteen and teenage girls treat puberty like something to hide. Instead of empowering girls and telling them that their bodies are theirs, we send the message that their bodies should be hidden. As a result, we are inadvertently teaching them their knowledge of their bodies should be minimal. That really couldn’t be further from the truth.

(Illustrations by Fleur Sciortino)

One area that’s often neglected by young women? Breast self-examinations. Breast cancer is something that most girls are aware of (after all, roughly one in eight women get breast cancer in their lifetime), but because it doesn’t typically affect people early in life, many don’t know to start feeling around their breasts for abnormal lumps or dimples until much later. Or worse, women get the message that the only time their breasts should be examined or touched is with a doctor or a sexual partner. Self-exams are crucial and we need to make sure that we teach our daughters to develop a habit of routine monitoring.

In fact, one 2011 study in the Journal of Women’s Health actually found that women detected their breast cancer through their own observations almost half of the time, making it even more critical that people start early and stay vigilant with early detection as opposed to relying on medical professionals to do this work.

In my book, “HelloFlo: The Guide, Period,” I worked hard to make sure that girls who read the book understand the connection between a positive connection with their bodies and long-term health. Being comfortable in your skin is important for health. If you’re uncomfortable with your body, you won’t explore it and recognize when things are changing in a way that requires a doctor’s attention.

I know how damaging it can be not to take body self-exams seriously from a young age. My fair skin is covered with moles and freckles. After noticing abnormalities on my skin for years and shrugging them off I finally went to the dermatologist for a check when I was 29 at my mother’s urging. During that visit, a biopsy was taken and it was later confirmed that I had an early melanoma that would need to be surgically removed. Just recently my dermatologist discovered a second melanoma which was also removed surgically.

Now that I’m in my mid-40s and the mother of two children, I am vigilant about my health — breast, skin and pretty much anything else I can control with monitoring. But as a young adult who loved how she looked with a tan (it was the ’80s), cancer was the last thing on my mind.

My only wish is that I hadn’t waited until I was in my 30s to become diligent about taking care of myself and understanding changes going on within my body. I was lucky, but I can only imagine what happens to so many others when they aren’t meticulous about understanding the changes they’re experiencing.

As the founder of the women’s health brand HelloFlo and the author of “HelloFlo: The Guide, Period,” I’ve spent nearly half a decade preaching the importance of treating girls’ health as “normal” instead of something to be ashamed of. Taking care of your breasts falls under that umbrella.

If we don’t teach girls from a young age to take care of their bodies, they never will. This sort of self-care is habitual, and women can’t figure out differences or abnormalities unless they’re consistently taking a few minutes each month to see if there are any changes. It’s empowering to feel like you know your body from the start.

Why wouldn’t we want to give that gift to every girl early in her life?

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