Schoolgirls learn to look for cancer
A project led by two doctors is teaching teenage girls how to examine themselves for breast cancer
A GROUP of pupils gather in their school hall and nervously approach the life-sized rubber breasts displayed in front of them.
The 60 girls at Kantor King Solomon High School in Redbridge, Essex, are taking part in a lesson with a difference. Rather than sitting through their traditional assembly, the year 11 and 12 pupils are being instructed, for the first time, on how to check for lumps that could be warning signs of breast cancer.
The session is part of the “Befriend Your Boobs” project set up by doctors Michelle Newman and Michelle Feriss. Their aim is to educate Jewish girls about the threat of cancer.
Dr Newman explains: “Some families have an inherited gene mutation that can increase the risk of developing certain types of cancer.
“For women of Ashkenazi backgrounds there are three specific gene faults known as BRCA that are seen more commonly in the Jewish population.”
Dr Ferris, who launched the project at North London Collegiate School in Stanmore, north-west London, before taking it to Jewish schools, adds: “We wanted to give girls a set of skills to reduce their individual risk of breast cancer and to pick up tumours early.”
Firmly prodding one of the model breasts under the armpit, Dr Newman tells the pupils: “If you don’t feel there, you could miss this one here.”
She moves on to identify and point out a bigger lump to a group of eight pupils.
“I think most of the girls we see miss this one, so what we are aiming to do is teach them how to check the whole breast,” Dr Newman explains.“What you need to do is feel all of the breast tissue and not miss really large areas.”
It is the first time 17-year-old Hannah Marconteh, who has a history of the BRCA gene in her family, has been shown how to check her breast.“It is a big thing for me because of my family history,” she says. “I’d never checked my breasts before but I am going to start doing it.”
As she leans forward to prod one of the model breasts with her index finger, she says: “I thought you had to go like that to feel it.”
Her friends offer a collective nod of agreement as Dr Newman explains a better way to examine the tissue:
“Your fingers are very sensitive, so if you put your fingers together whilst working your way round, it is a much better way of checking,” she says while showing the group the correct method.
“Examining yourself is like a life skill, a bit like cleaning your teeth every day. I’m not asking you to do it every day but we are asking for you to do it regularly.”
The BYB project has already visited 11 schools, and educated more than 2,500 Jewish students about the risks of breast cancer.
The doctors say it is important to speak frankly about what differences the girls can expect from their breasts and how best to recognise a change that could be worrying.
Dr Newman says: “They might be different sizes, you might have nipples pointing in. You might have one in and one out and that is fine, if that is what it has always been like, but what we are asking you to notice is for something out of the ordinary.”
Talia Levy, 16, knows about breast cancer, having supported her mother through treatment two years ago.
She says: “My mum got tested for the BRCA gene and found out she doesn’t have it, but she still had breast cancer.”
The teenager adds: “I think everyone should learn about cancer and how it can be a risk. She felt something that turned out not to be cancer, but when they were examining her they discovered something else that was.”
The year 12 pupil says she regularly checks her own breasts and the session has taught her “how to do it properly.
“It doesn’t embarrass me talking about it,” she adds. “I think it is important and I would talk about it with my friends, too.”
Chloe Ziff, 17, says: “I have checked before but I don’t really know what I’ve been looking for.”
Her friend, 16-year-old Jessica Perseu, adds: “I’ve had a look for a lump before but I don’t really know what it looks or feels like, so being able to feel what that is like is really helpful.”
As part of the session, the girls are taught the difference between genetic risks such as the BRCA gene and lifestyle risks such as drinking alcohol and having a poor diet, such as too much saturated fat and low Vitamin D.
Molly Leckerman, 16, was unaware there were lifestyle factors that increased her risk of breast cancer.
Rebecca Saunders, 17, was surprised to learn that taking the contraceptive pill lowered the risk of some cancers, yet slightly increased the risk of breast cancer.
She says: “I found that a bit confusing because you don’t know if it is good to be on the pill or not. I didn’t find the session scary, but it was very informative in a surprising way. It has made me aware I need to start checking.”
Lisa Parodi, a year 12 student, says she never “thought about cancer in the sense that it could be me.
“They talked about standing in the mirror with your top off to examine yourself, and that made sense.
“I kind of already do that before I go in the shower but it is good to know it is what we are supposed to do.”
We are asking you to notice something out of the ordinary’
Teenagers at Kantor King Solomon get to grips with the prosthetic breasts
The ‘Befriend Your Boobs’ project sees girls encouraged to check false breasts for lumps