By Mary Ann Wasil Nilan
Why am I teaching a ten-year-old girl to give herself a breast exam?
A couple of years ago, with the help of a school nurse, I facilitated a focus group of a dozen girls ranging in age from 8 to 18. All of them were familiar with breast cancer, but every girl, with the exception of my daughters, thought that you actually got breast cancer from wearing your bra too tight. Whoa. It was an eye-opener.
We want girls to know their bodies better than their mothers ever did, or their grandmothers would ever approve of. Knowledge is power and the power to save your life is in your own hands. It needs to be a habit, a routine, a ritual that you can’t live without doing. BSE is like BYT – breast self exam is like brushing your teeth!
In response to the surprising results of our focus group, and in collaboration with a medical consulting board, I developed the Daisy Wheel. It’s a little larger than a CD, and it has one cut-out petal that rotates over the “8 Tips for 8-Straight” years of the Girls’ Program. The Daisy Wheel educates girls on proper breast healthcare with every tip -- from Tip #1, “BSE Breast Self Exam,” to Tip #3, “Lying down, firmly press 3 fingers on your breast in a circular motion. Examine each petal,” to the marching orders of Tip #8, “Did you see or feel something that worries you? Don’t be embarrassed – tell your mom, dad, sister, grandma, school nurse, teacher, your BFF! Talk about it – GET IN TOUCH!”
Health educators are encouraged to give the Daisy Wheel to girls starting in the fifth grade. The girls use the tool – and receive a new one each year -- through the 12th grade.
The feedback from the girls has been positive. As one fifth grader told me, she “didn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t [BSE], there’s nothing to be afraid of. It should be like brushing your teeth.” (Exactly!)
The Daisy Wheel launched in Milford, Connecticut. Now cities and towns throughout the state are requesting Daisy Wheels for their schools, and we’re expecting it to spread across the country, as well as around the world. In March I’ll fly to Germany to discuss introducing the program to international schools.
We believe that a positive side effect of our wonderful program will be that as girls become responsible for their bodies at a young age, they will be less likely to allow others to objectify their bodies. They will expect – demand! – that others do the same.
Why am I so passionate about this project? Along with being the executive director & founder of the nonprofit Get In Touch Foundation, I am a five-year breast cancer kickin’ survivor, health activist and the mother of three teens, including two daughters. While they were the impetus for this program, I am committed to educating not only the girls who call me “Mom,” but all girls that this is a lifesaver. And I know intimately how true this statement is.
I myself didn’t always follow the suggested “once a month” breast self-examination. The day I turned 30 and ran my first “Race For The Cure,” I gained a self-awareness of my own body that went beyond “once a month.” I checked my breasts regularly. I never gave it much thought. I just did it.
So I knew the moment I found that teeny-tiny-tiny-teeny-little lump on my left breast that it wasn’t right. That confidence in my own body took me past the radiologist’s suggestion to watch it and come back in a year, because he felt it was “probably nothing, since I was only thirty-nine and had no family history of breast cancer.” Yikes. It’s a good thing that I had “gotten in touch” with myself and had the confidence to ask questions and want answers.
So – encourage the girls in your life to “Get In Touch” with their bodies, with information, and with each other, in our crusade against breast cancer. Join us as we “change the world one girl at a time!”
Mary Ann Wasil Nilan is a mother to three teens, a breast cancer kickin’ survivor & health activist, and the executive director & founder of The Get In Touch Foundation.