Mobilizing Massachusetts students against breast cancer

Lawrence High School students gathered to promote breast cancer awareness with roses, balloons, and signs before the walkathon.
Public awareness campaigns about breast cancer are not typically aimed at teenagers, who rarely get the disease. Yet the exposure to breast cancer risk factors often begins in the critical years of a teenager's physical development.

In an effort to identify the best means to reach teenagers with that message, JSI Research & Training Institute, Inc., coordinated an innovative project in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The project, called Youth Lead Lawrence, enlisted students at the Lawrence High School for Health and Human Services to promote breast cancer awareness among their peers.

A group of about 20 students joined the Health Promotion Club at the school. Trained to lead the breast cancer awareness campaign, the students spearheaded an array of activities: Surveys, discussions, walkathons, and the creation and distribution of written materials about breast cancer risk factors and prevention. The aim was to help teenagers in Lawrence lessen the breast cancer risk factors in their lives by encouraging them to pursue exercise and a healthful diet, avoid alcohol, and minimize their exposure to cancer-causing agents in the environment.

Even as it educated teenagers about breast cancer, the project served a wider purpose in Lawrence, whose residents are 70 percent Latino. Terry Greene, a senior environmental health specialist at JSI who was the project's lead coordinator, explained: "Research into Latino health disparities has found that young people can help family members overcome cultural barriers and become more knowledgeable about safeguarding their health and gaining access to affordable health care."

With initial funding from the Massachusetts affiliate of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation, JSI provided technical expertise and other support in partnership with the high school's faculty. The Komen affiliate, a leading source of funds in the state for breast cancer awareness and prevention, awarded grants to JSI covering work on the project for two years beginning in April 2008.

Students at the annual Lawrence High School Breast Cancer Walkathon, launched by youth leaders in the Health Promotion Club under JSI's Youth Lead Lawrence Project.
At the outset of the initiative, JSI joined with the high school to conduct a focus group with students to assess the extent of breast cancer awareness and identify gaps in students' knowledge of the disease.The incidence of breast cancer is lower in Lawrence than it is nationwide; but the survival rate is poor for those who are diagnosed. This is likely due to the relatively late-stage diagnosis of the disease for Lawrence residents. Breast cancer is the number one cause of cancer deaths among Hispanic women in this country.

As a distressed former mill town, Lawrence has more than its share of public health concerns. Some of the problems are a legacy of its industrial past, including toxic chemicals in the environment that are risk factors in breast cancer. At the time this article was first published, a quarter of Lawrence residents had no health insurance, surveys showed. Just 40 percent of the city's women over forty had had mammograms, despite a long-standing public health recommendation in favor of them after that age.

As part of the high school's outreach campaign, students distributed informational materials about these issues at the high school and during visits to a farmer's market, churches, a middle school, and the Lawrence City Hall. Echoing the theme of national breast cancer awareness in October, the club staged walkathons for hundreds of students on their school's track that month in 2008 which have since become annual events. The event was reported in the bilingual local newspaper, Rumbo News.

The walkathons were also a fundraising event—customized T-shirts and pink roses were sold—raising several hundreds of dollars for local
breast cancer outreach programs for low-income women.

To chronicle some of the key events of their campaign, the students created a slide show of photos and text that JSI has posted on its website. Also available on the website are lesson plans that JSI and the Lawrence teachers used in the breast cancer awareness project.

It has yielded an educational bonus, according to Diane Davilla-Colon, the faculty supervisor of the Health Promotion Club. "Some students have been so inspired by their involvement in the club that for the first time they are envisioning themselves having a career in health science and research," Davilla-Colon says.

Evaluating the project's results was one of the final stages of JSI's involvement, JSI's Terry Greene explained: "We looked at the innovative elements of the project, such as the fact that we started with adolescents and stressed environmental factors, as well as the project's particular value using youths as health promoters with Latino family members so that we could see what impact we had."