There was a moment of silence in the Overlea High School auditorium as Barbara Samuelson told 150 young women how she discovered cancer in her right breast.
A mother of two young children, Mrs. Samuelson was 32 when she felt a suspicious breast lump while taking a shower. She eventually lost both breasts after her cancer was diagnosed, but the disease has not recurred. She will celebrate her 53rd birthday this month.
"Every cancer is different," she told the girls. "Every case is different. The key is early detection. . . . One of our responsibilities is to examine ourselves regularly. . . . And I want you to take this message home to your mother, aunt, sisters and other women relatives."
Mrs. Samuelson's story is part of a new program, Check It Out, that will teach about 4,000 Baltimore County high school students the importance of examining their breasts regularly to find cancers when they are at their most curable stages.
The hour-long program includes a talk by a breast cancer survivor, a discussion of the disease and who it affects, anatomical diagrams of breast composition and an explanation of the techniques of self-examination. In addition, Chris Ely, a weekend sportscaster for WJZ-TV, talks about his 45-year-old wife's battle against her fatal breast cancer and the importance of early detection.
An educational kit distributed to each student contains a breast self-examination instruction card that attaches to the shower arm, and a miniature model of a breast that has two easily felt lumps to acquaint girls with what they are checking for.
Although the miniature breasts drew a few initial squeals and gasps as the girls manipulated them, the students were mostly quiet, caught up in the speakers' presentations.
"I didn't know that much about breast cancer before today," said Overlea High School senior Jamie Stevenson. "I think one of the best parts of the presentation was the breast model because it shows you what a lump feels like. . . . Before now, I had no idea about how to do a breast self-examination. I think I will try it now because it's [the cancer] kind of scary."
"I think people will take the information home and talk about it with their mothers and sisters," senior Angeliki Frangos said. "I think people were really paying attention."
Both girls -- whose mothers are in their mid-40s -- said that they and their friends were particularly moved by Mr. Ely's story.
"It hit home," Ms. Stevenson said.
The Check It Out program is being sponsored by the Baltimore chapter of Hadassah, the University of Maryland Cancer Center and the American Cancer Society in conjunction with the school system.
Although the risks of teen-age girls developing breast cancer are extremely low -- less than one in 25,000, according to University of Cancer Center nurse practitioner Linda Swallow -- the benefits of developing good health habits are clear. Advocates also hope that the information distributed will help students' families as well.
"Just as we've felt the impact of children coming home and saying, 'Daddy, why do you smoke?' teen-aged women will now come home and say 'Mother, do you examine your breasts regularly and have you had a mammogram?' " says Dr. Ernest Borden, director of the University of Maryland Cancer Center.
The American Cancer Society estimates that 182,000 new cases of breast cancer -- 3,500 in Maryland -- will be detected this year. More than 46,000 women will die from the disease.
The society recommends all women have a screening mammogram by age 40; a mammogram every one to two years between the ages of 40 to 49, and a mammogram every year over the age of 50.
Although screening mammograms can pick up cancers that are too small to detect manually, they often miss disease in young women whose breast tissue is dense. The society advises that, in addition to regular breast self-examination, women receive a clinical physical examination of the breast once every three years from the ages of 20 to 40 and once every year after that.
Modeled on a 1992 breast-cancer awareness program that Hadassah created in Corpus Christi, Texas, the Check It Out project is the largest outreach program sponsored by Baltimore's 5,000 Hadassah volunteers.
The country's largest women's Zionist organization, Hadassah has sponsored similar breast-cancer awareness programs in high schools in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, California and Washington, D.C. In 1993, the Washington chapter of Hadassah helped create a program that reached 7,000 Montgomery County students.
Over the next two months, the Check It Out program will be presented at 14 Baltimore County high schools: Parkville, Western Tech, Dundalk, Owings Mills, Catonsville, Pikesville, Hereford, Patapsco, Randallstown, Franklin, Loch Raven, Towson, Milford Mill and Southeastern Tech.
Liberty Medical Center plans to launch a similar program in city high schools next September through its Urban Medical Institute health care delivery system.
The "Check It Out" format includes time for questions from students. The students at Overlea wanted to know:
* Will sunbathing nude or tanning in a tanning booth give you breast cancer? -- "No, but it may increase your risk for skin cancer," said Ms. Swallow.
* When you get implants, do you have feeling in your breasts? -- "Not the same kind of sexual feeling, but you can still feel touch," Ms. Samuelson said.
* Can men get breast cancer? -- "Yes, but it's very, very rare," Ms. Swallow said.
* Is it true that people under the age of 18 face a higher risk of breast cancer if they have an abortion rather than giving birth to the baby? -- According to Ms. Swallow, the studies about the risk of abortion on breast cancer have not been conclusive.