Collective fear, individualized risk: the social and cultural context of genetic testing for breast cancer

Nurs Ethics. 2000 May;7(3):237-49. doi: 10.1177/096973300000700306.


The purpose of this article is to provide a critical examination of two aspects of culture and biomedicine that have helped to shape the meaning and practice of genetic testing for breast cancer. These are: (1) the cultural construction of fear of breast cancer, which has been fuelled in part by (2) the predominance of a 'risk' paradigm in contemporary biomedicine. The increasing elaboration and delineation of risk factors and risk numbers are in part intended to help women to contend with their fear of breast cancer. However, because there is no known cure or foolproof prevention for breast cancer, risk designations bring with them recommendations for vigilant surveillance strategies and screening guidelines. We argue that these in effect exacerbate women's fears of breast cancer itself. The volatile combination of discourses of fear, risk and surveillance have significant ethical and social consequences for women's lives and well-being. Genetic testing decisions are made within this context; if nurses understand this context they can play an important role in helping women to cope with the anxiety and fear of breast cancer risk.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Anxiety / ethnology
  • Anxiety / prevention & control
  • Attitude to Health / ethnology*
  • Breast Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Breast Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Comprehension
  • Ethics, Nursing
  • Fear*
  • Female
  • Genetic Testing / nursing
  • Genetic Testing / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Statistical
  • Risk Factors
  • Social Values*
  • Women / psychology*