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Prodded to action

Each year, more than 1,000 Pinellas teenagers learn the benefits of checking for breast and testicular cancer.

Published February 28, 2006


A guest speaker in the health education class displays a line drawing.

"What is this?'' asks Jill Engelman.

"That's a breast,'' answers Zacree Hickey, 16.

He and two dozen other Seminole High School students are too cool to be visibly embarrassed. Today they will learn about breast self-examinations. They will prod a mini gelatinous model to search for a lump. They will watch a video with Beverly Hills 90210 star Jennie Garth in which three girls will palpitate their naked breasts to check for changes that can signal cancer.

"Touch it, Nathan!'' teases sophomore Alyssa Collins after the models are placed on desktops.

Nathan Dimura smiles, then complies.

Engelman and Stephanie Stein taught four classes on a recent morning at the high school. They bring the educational program, called "Check It Out," to more than 1,000 Pinellas County teenagers a year through the Jewish women's service group Hadassah and St. Anthony's Hospital.

They want to create awareness about breast and testicular cancer.

Their stage is a room that contains a cork board covered with models of male and female reproductive organs fashioned by the students out of fluorescent pipe cleaners, paper plates and cupcake papers. Their audience is an age group whose awareness of breasts is as inescapable as dangling bra straps.

Stein asks who knows someone with breast cancer.

Eight hands go up.

One in eight women will be diagnosed in their lifetime, she says.

Engelman encourages the boys to pay attention as well. The techniques for breast self-exams are similar to those used on . . .

"The testicles,'' Hickey says.

The young men talk much more than the young women.

"The boys are the smart alecks,'' Collins says.

The girls are more nervous about this topic, says Michael Perry, who knew that breast cancer strikes one in every 900 men when Engelman asked.

Engelman has been visiting high schools for almost 10 years. Students have asked whether nipple piercings cause cancer unproven, if a nursing mother's leaking milk is a symptom of disease (highly unlikely), and if a nipple can be saved when a cancerous breast is removed (sometimes).

There are few questions today.

Stein says becoming familiar with the texture, density and appearance of one's breasts now, and performing monthly self-exams, establishes a healthy habit for when risks for cancer rise with age.

"If you notice something that is not normal, check it out,'' Stein says.

She says this to a roomful of people whose bodies are changing so dramatically they may feel abnormal on any given day.

Only once does the class' collective calm crack. The video cuts to a woman the age of their mothers. She begins to remove her bra.

"Woooooo!'' A collective sigh of relief when the camera cuts away before the bra falls.

Kayla Miller, 16, has not taken her minibreast out of its packaging. She is going to take it home. She says she does not know if there is breast cancer in her family history.

"I'm going to go talk to my mother about it now.''

Susan Aschoff can be reached at (727) 892-2293 or

[Last modified February 28, 2006, 09:26:29]

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