Considering the huge spike in breast cancer awareness over the past 30 years, it’s surprising that breast health isn’t a part of most public high schools’ health education programs. Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, has taken the initial steps to raise breast cancer awareness among Delaware 16- to 18-year-olds; her local program could be a model to roll out nationwide.
Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, is our "Second Lady" (though I prefer the title she goes by around the White House: Dr. Jill Biden, courtesy of a doctoral degree in educational leadership). As such, she gets a fair amount of PR - currently for her work in USAID’s FWD campaign, which addresses desperate living conditions in the Horn of Africa.
Prior to her husband’s taking office at the White House 3 ½ years ago, however, Biden was more known for one of the country’s first formal breast health education programs aimed at high school women.
The Biden Breast Health Initiative (BBHI), founded back in 1993, is a not-for-profit organization that provides an educational breast health awareness program (free of charge) to all public, private, and parochial schools, other groups and organizations in the state of Delaware. (Joe Biden had been a Delaware Senator for 30 years.)
The BBHI’s mission statement is "to empower young women through awareness and education to assume responsibility for their overall well-being with a strong emphasis on breast health."
How did Biden, a long-time high school and community college English teacher, become involved with breast cancer education?
Breast cancer awareness began with Jill as it does with so many women: several of her friends were diagnosed, and she was there to support them.
"In 1993, I had three close friends who had breast cancer and, actually, one of those friends died," she said in an online interview at the Huffington Post. "As an educator, my first thought was to what I could do. I mean, I’m not a medical person, but what could I do as an educator. So I developed the Biden Health Initiative."
Biden, 61, is currently an English teacher at a community college in Virginia. She’s clearly in contact with young women on a daily basis. And I can imagine her projecting her friends’ breast cancer experience onto her vibrant, healthy young students, and saying, "This should never happen to these women. They need to be educated about breast cancer. And I can make that happen."
Since it kicked off at 19 Delaware high schools in 1994, the BBHI has educated thousands of young women about breast cancer. The program teaches high school women about breast health; how/when/why to do breast self-exams (BSE); and how to make healthy lifestyle choices, pointing out the importance of each in a commitment to a healthy future.
If you check out the Q & A part of this site, you’ll notice a surprising number of questions from teenage girls wondering if they have breast cancer. These girls know enough to be scared; but they don’t know enough to be able to identify symptoms: what’s significant (unusual breast lumps), and what’s not (sore breasts; breast lumps that come and go with their period).
I ache for these young women. They’re frightened to tell their moms; too young to contact a doctor on their own; shy about discussing their breasts with ANYONE.
So they Google breast cancer, and come here to HealthCentral. I try to reassure them by answering their questions. But how much better it would be for them to know exactly what to worry about, and what to let go.
How fortunate they’d be if they lived in Delaware and went through the BBHI program.
And how fortunate we’ll all be if Jill Biden some day finds a way to expand BBHI nationwide, so that all of our young women get a firm grounding in breast health.
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.