Serena Williams sings 'I Touch Myself' for breast cancer awareness — here's why self-exams are controversial

In a video posted to her Instagram this weekend, sports legend and mother Serena Williams ushered in the start of Breast Cancer Awareness month in an unexpected way: a song.

Her post, which has been viewed nearly 2 million times, shows the tennis star belting out the opening lyrics to the 1990 hit “I Touch Myself,” by the Divinyls while clutching her chest. “I search myself/ I want you to find me,” she sings. “I forget myself/ I want you to remind me.” The video scans down to reveal Williams topless, then ends on a sobering lyric: “Think I would die/ If you were to ignore me.”

The somber ending is no accident. As Williams reveals in the caption, her post is part of the I Touch Myself Project, a movement honoring the lead singer of the Divinyls, Chrissy Amphlett, who tragically died of breast cancer at age 53. The project was started by Amphlett’s family in the aftermath of her death. “Chrissy was passionate about spreading awareness of the importance of early detection,” the mission statement reads. “[She] wanted the global hit song ‘I Touch Myself’ to be adapted as an anthem for breast health around the world.”

The cause is one that Williams seems equally passionate about — despite not having been diagnosed with breast cancer herself. “Yes, this put me out of my comfort zone, but I wanted to do it because it’s an issue that affects all women of all colors, all around the world,” Williams writes on Instagram. “Early detection is key – it saves so many lives. I just hope this helps to remind women of that.”

By Monday, Williams’s post seemed to be making waves, inspiring write-ups across the web. But beyond the courageous nature of the video, how important is the message it sends?

With limited research on the topic, the answer seems to depend on who you ask. It turns out breast self-examinations are hotly debated in the U.S. and around the world — and have been ever since they were introduced to American women in the late 1930s (by a Florida-based nonprofit). In his book The Breast Cancer Wars, Barron H. Lerner writes that the practice increased in America during the 1960s and ’70s, when the American Cancer Society (ACS) released a video tutorial on how to perform one.

The video prompted articles in Good Housekeeping and other magazines, popularizing breast self-exams in the media. But by the 1980s and ’90s, researchers began to push back, suggesting that there was insufficient evidence to support them as a way of preventing cancer. That theory is one many still endorse today. Part of the reasoning seems to be that breast self-examinations increase the incidence of false-positives, which are both expensive and stressful to the women who undergo testing.

But not all researchers agree — others see that as a small price to pay for the lives that can be saved. On an information page about breast self-exams, Johns Hopkins University estimates that as many as 40 percent of diagnosed breast cancers today are detected by women who find a lump themselves. A study published in the Journal of Women’s Health in 2011 found that 57 percent of female survivors said there was more involved in their breast cancer detection than a mammogram — with 25 percent reporting self-examination as the additional method, and 18 percent saying they found a lump accidentally.

While the ACS doesn’t specifically recommend breast self-exams, it does mention the discovery of a lump as crucial. “Most often when breast cancer is detected because of symptoms (such as a lump), a woman discovers the symptom during usual activities such as bathing or dressing,” the ACS writes. “Women should be familiar with how their breasts normally look and feel and report any changes to a health care provider right away.”

The National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF) — aside from the I Touch Myself Project — is perhaps the biggest endorser of this practice, urging women to perform self-examinations at least once a month. The organization’s reasoning is simple: No one knows your breasts better than you do. “While mammograms can help you to detect cancer before you can feel a lump, breast self-exams help you to be familiar with how your breasts look and feel,” the NBCF writes. “[Then] you can alert your healthcare professional if there are any changes.”

On top of statistics showing the benefits, there are numerous anecdotal stories of women whose lives were saved through self-detection. In People this past April, a 24-year-old named Alex Whitaker opened up about finding breast cancer while getting ready to go out with her friends. Whitaker says she felt a lump while putting on a sticky bra. Although in the moment she didn’t think twice, Whitaker woke up the next morning worried, and performed a self-exam.

“I remembered feeling the lump, and checked to see if it was still there. It didn’t take any groping, poking or prodding to find it,” she writes. “The lump was just as prominent as I had remembered, and I could feel it by lightly brushing my fingers over the skin.” Whitaker, who had just moved back home to Florida from New York City, was told by doctors that it was nothing. She soon learned they were wrong.

“The next few weeks consisted of various appointments for imaging and a breast biopsy,” she writes. “Despite being reassured by nearly every technician, nurse and doctor that there would be nothing to worry about, on February 8, 2018, I was diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma.” Still, in the midst of her battle, Whitaker started a blog called WhittysTittyCommittee, in which she encourages other women to “squeeze a titty, because you might just save a life.”

For her — and the more than 250,000 women (and over 2,000 men) diagnosed with breast cancer each year — Williams’s message is likely a welcome one. Whether or not science agrees, the final hashtag on Williams’s post seems to sum up the essence of her project: #DoItForYourself.

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