American statistics show that breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths among women, and yet only a third of women regularly check their breasts for signs of the disease*.
Now research by Jamie Goldenberg and colleagues suggests existential angst could be a key factor that is putting women off self-checking.
In a morbid context, being reminded that we're made of flesh and bone, just like other animals, can exacerbate existential angst. In an initial study, Goldenberg's team showed that female university students who read an essay about the similarity of animals and humans, and who were asked to think about their own mortality, were subsequently less likely than a control group of students (who imagined a painful dentist visit) to say they planned to check their breasts.
Another experiment timed how long women checked their breasts for after they either read an essay about the similarity of animals and humans, or about the uniqueness of humans. There was a trend for the group who read about the similarity of animals and humans to spend less time self-checking.
There was a further twist to this last experiment. Earlier on, the women had been asked to taste a new proto-type health drink, with half of them told it was supposed to be calming and the other half told it was an energy drink, which may cause nervousness.
Among the women who read the essay about the similarity of humans and animals, and who were therefore expected to experience existential angst, only those who had drunk the calming drink spent a reduced amount of time checking their breasts. The researchers said this is because whereas all these women were presumably feeling uncomfortable, thanks to existential angst, those who'd tasted the energy drink were able to attribute their discomfort to the anticipated nervous effect of the energy drink, thus leading them to persevere longer with their self-checking.
"Applied health workers only stand to gain by considering whether interventions and instructional materials can be delivered in ways that reduce the likelihood of casting breast self-examination in a creaturely light [i.e in ways that don't remind women of their mortality]," the researchers concluded.
GOLDENBERG, J., ARNDT, J., HART, J., ROUTLEDGE, C. (2008). Uncovering an existential barrier to breast self-exam behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(2), 260-274. DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2007.05.002
* In the UK, the NHS encourages breast awareness rather than routine self-examination.