Talking to Your Kids About Breast Cancer

Breast cancer prevention

As the world around us turns pink for breast cancer awareness month, your children, teens and young adults may have some questions—and we are here to give you some answers to these common questions. First the basics—breast cancer is the second most common cancer among women, with some 250,000 new cases per year. 

Can young women get breast cancer?
While most breast cancer cases occur in women over the age of 50, younger women (even in their 20s) can and do get diagnosed with breast cancer (about 11% of all cases). In fact, younger women (those who have not yet reached menopause) tend to have more aggressive variants of the disease. Sometimes, breast cancer can be trickier to diagnose in young women because it is more unexpected and younger women tend to have more dense breasts which can be harder to fully evaluate during a mammogram. 

Does breast cancer run in families?
Yes and no. If there is a strong family history of breast cancer, especially in pre-menopausal women, and you are of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, there are genetic mutations (BRCA1 and BRCA2) that can increase your risk. 

Are there any ways to prevent breast cancer?
When it comes to cancer, our strategy should be to reduce risk—even those who do everything “right” may still be at risk. Cancer is never anyone’s fault! If you are looking to minimize your risk, here are a few tips…maintain a healthy diet and regular exercise regimen, avoid smoking and excess alcohol use, and consider breastfeeding your babies. Women who are on hormonal replacement therapy or estrogens may also be at higher risk— it’s important to speak to your doctor to see what’s best for you. 

The other thing you can do to protect yourself is to be vigilant about looking for signs and symptoms, even if you are too young for a mammogram (under 40 years old). Breast cancer does not have to present just as a “lump” in the breast or underarm. Women may notice changes in the skin of their breasts, including thickening, swelling, flaking, or dimpling. Signs of breast cancer can also include nipple discharge, pain in the nipple or breast, or any change in size or shape of the breast. Encourage your children and teens to get to know their bodies, learn how to do self-exams and bring concerns to you and their health care team. 

One of my family members was just diagnosed with breast cancer. How do I explain this to my kids?
First, be honest. When kids must fill in the blanks when they are worried, they often come up with scarier ideas than we can imagine. Explain in an age-appropriate way that their loved one has a disease called “cancer.” Remind them that cancer is not contagious and their loved one is going to have good care, which might include surgery or strong medicines that might make them lose their hair or feel sick. Encourage your kids and teens to send cards, visit (either virtually or in-person), or even fundraise and volunteer in honor of their loved one. 

Is it true that I can get breast cancer from underwire bras, antiperspirants, or an injury to my breast?
Nope! These are all myths. The type of bra you wear has no bearing on your breast cancer risk—neither does breast size or shape. Antiperspirants, despite a lot of hype, have never been proven to increase the risk of breast cancer and are completely safe to use. And, although an injury or bruise to your breast will hurt, it will not cause cancer to develop. Remember to check out the facts with a reliable source and your health care team! 

Dr. Rina Meyer is a board certified pediatric hematologist-oncologist at Stony Brook Children’s and Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University. Her views are her own and do not necessarily represent the views of Stony Brook Children’s and the Renaissance School of Medicine.

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