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Embarrassed pupils ignore cancer advice

David Budge reports from the British Psychological Society conference in London.

Insensitively-handled health education lessons can discourage teenagers from carrying out the cancer checks that could save their lives.

That is the disturbing message which has emerged from a study of 15 and 16-year-olds' responses to two health promotion programmes highlighting the dangers of testicular and cervical cancer.

Two researchers who questioned 75 comprehensive school pupils about the video-based programmes said that the health education tutors they had observed had displayed "ineptness". They also said the films were so graphic that they embarrassed the young audiences.

Before seeing their video the girls felt positive about cervical screening, but afterwards most said that they no longer intended to have such a check-up. Equally worryingly, six weeks after watching the video on testicular cancer a large proportion of the boys admitted that they were not carrying out the recommended self-examination even though this cancer is the second most lethal form of the disease among 15 to 34-year-old males.

The researchers, Barbel Pee and Sean Hammond, of Surrey University, told last month's British Psychological Society conference that showing the films to single-sex groups had not saved the pupils from extreme embarrassment. The boys, especially, had expressed a need for privacy, but their tutors were largely unsympathetic. "Our class observation of teacher-pupil interaction revealed the ineptness of health education tutors in dealing successfully with the emotional reaction of their pupils," Ms Pee and Dr Hammond said.

The researchers conceded that there were some benefits from the anti-cancer programme. More than half the boys had examined themselves after seeing the film, and the six-week follow-up visit showed that there had been a significant increase in pupils' knowledge and awareness, including their understanding of human reproduction.

Nevertheless, they felt their investigation had demonstrated that anti-cancer programmes must not only reflect a "commonsense approach" - the one adopted by the video-makers - but should pay heed to psychological theory.

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