Risk perception and psychological strain in women with a family history of breast cancer

Onkologie. 2001 Oct;24(5):470-5. doi: 10.1159/000055128.


Background: The thinking in health psychology is that patients' willingness to adopt preventive health behavior is contingent on their perceiving an increased risk of disease and is influenced by accompanying psychological stress. In counseling women with a family history of breast cancer, physicians focus on encouraging the patient to undergo early detection examinations as recommended. Therefore, it is essential to examine how women in this risk group perceive their own chances of developing breast cancer and to assess the psychological effects of their situation.

Material and methods: 129 women with at least one first or second degree relative who had developed breast cancer were enrolled in a questionnaire study. The object was to ascertain the extent to which these women may be expected to realistically estimate their own probability of contracting the disease and what influence risk perception and psychological strain have on their willingness to make use of diagnostic opportunities for early detection. Additionally, the effects on their physical and mental well-being were analyzed.

Results: Among the women of the study group, a family history of breast cancer did not always correlate with the subject's perception of an increased risk of contracting the disease compared. On the whole, the majority of the women overestimated their personal risk despite prior genetic counseling. Only slightly less than one quarter of the study group correctly estimated their risk; another quarter underestimated it. The majority of those women who exhibited an increased risk perception were also those who overestimated their probability of personally contracting the disease. They underwent recommended screening examinations significantly less often than women with a low risk perception. However, women subjected to intense psychological strain showed above-average participation in screening programs.

Conclusions: Women with a family history of breast cancer often find it difficult to realistically estimate their own risk of contracting the disease. Increased risk perception had a negative effect on participation in recommended breast cancer screening. Therefore, an effort should be made to correct the patient's overestimation of her personal risk. Integrating psychological counseling in screening programs is essential considering that women from high-risk groups are subjected to increased psychological strain. Further studies are required to more precisely evaluate other psychosocial factors in the behavior of women in risk group toward screening.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Attitude to Health*
  • Breast Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Breast Neoplasms / prevention & control
  • Breast Neoplasms / psychology
  • Female
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease / genetics
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease / psychology
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice
  • Humans
  • Mass Screening / psychology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care / psychology*
  • Risk Assessment
  • Stress, Psychological / complications*