Following recent efforts by the Prostate Cancer Foundation to promote prostate testing using men as young as 31 saying to the camera that prostate cancer can kill men “just like me” (of the 75,433 men who died from prostate cancer between 1968 and 2007, just two were aged 30-34) it seems it’s now the women’s turn. ABC radio on Sunday morning was reporting that “Figures show 15 per cent of women diagnosed with bre-st cancer are under the age of 30”.

Now what figures would those be?

Either figures the reporter misread or misheard, or dodgy figures used by advocates spruiking for their cause at a Gold Coast conference on young people and cancer.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s most recent data on national cancer incidence shows that 66 Australian women aged less than 30 were diagnosed with bre-st cancer out of 12,614 diagnosed in all ages. That’s 0.5% — not 15%.  The online report had no feedback or commentary button.

A study I published with colleagues recently of bre-st cancer reportage on TV found that more than half (55%) of statements about age and bre-st cancer referred to young women stated or known to be aged under 40 … 67% of images of women in television bre-st cancer reports were known or judged to be women aged under 40. Three cases in young celebrity women accounted for 53% of all statements and 24% of all images about young women and bre-st cancer.

In Australia, 10,906 of 12,614 (86.5%) bre-st cancer diagnoses were in women aged 45-plus and 9531 (75.6%) were in women over 50 years.

The push to present very young women being at significant risk for bre-st cancer may be lining the pockets of private radiography providers, but it will be causing an alarming and avoidable incidence of unnecessary investigation of what will be mostly false positives. Mammography finds many potential cancers that are then biopsied, and causing many young women high anxiety.

After the Kylie Minogue bre-st cancer publicity, there was a 101% increase in bookings for screening among women aged 40+ (the age at which the government provides free screens). But there was also a big increase in younger women seeking mammograms. This would have caused increased exposure to unnecessary radiation, anxiety and cancer phobia.

Will the ABC run a prominent corrective?

*Simon Chapman is professor of public health, University of Sydney.