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Genetics of Breast and Ovarian Cancer (PDQ®): Genetics - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Psychosocial Issues in Inherited Breast Cancer Syndromes


A few in-depth qualitative studies have looked at issues associated with family communication about genetic testing. Although the findings from these studies may not be generalizable to the larger population of at-risk persons, they illustrate the complexity of issues involved in conveying hereditary cancer risk information in families.[134] On the basis of 15 interviews conducted with women attending a familial cancer genetics clinic, the authors concluded that while women felt a sense of duty to discuss genetic testing with their relatives, they also experienced conflicting feelings of uncertainty, respect, and isolation. Decisions on whom in the family to inform and how to inform them about hereditary cancer and genetic testing may be influenced by tensions between women's need to fulfill social roles and their responsibilities toward themselves and others.[134] Another qualitative study of 21 women who attended a familial breast and ovarian cancer genetics clinic suggested that some women may find it difficult to communicate about inherited cancer risk with their partners and with certain relatives, especially brothers, because of those persons' own fears and worries about cancer.[127] This study also suggested that how genetic risk information is shared within families may depend on the existing norms for communicating about cancer in general. For example, family members may be generally open to sharing information about cancer with each other, may selectively avoid discussing cancer information with certain family members to protect themselves or other relatives from negative emotional reactions, or may ask a specific relative to act as an intermediary to disclosure of information to other family members.[135] The potential importance of persons outside the family, such as friends, as both confidantes about inherited cancer risk information and as sources of support for coping with this information was also noted in the study.[127]

A study of 31 mothers with a documented BRCA mutation explored patterns of dissemination to children.[136] Of those who chose to disclose test results to their children, age of offspring was the most important factor. Fifty percent of the children who were told were aged 20 to 29 years and slightly more than 25% of the children were aged 19 years or younger. Sons and daughters were notified in equal numbers. More than 70% of mothers informed their children within a week of learning their test result. Ninety-three percent of mothers who chose not to share their results with their children indicated that it was because their children were too young. These findings were consistent with three other studies showing that children younger than 13 years were less likely to be informed about test results compared with older children.[131,137,138] Another study of 187 mothers undergoing BRCA1/BRCA2 testing evaluated their need for resources to prepare for a facilitated conversation about sharing their BRCA1/BRCA2 testing results with their children. Seventy-eight percent of mothers were interested in three or more resources, including literature (93%), family counseling (86%), talk to prior participants (79%), and support groups (54%).[137]


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Last Updated: February 25, 2014
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