Genetics of Breast and Ovarian Cancer (PDQ®): Genetics - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Psychosocial Issues in Inherited Breast Cancer Syndromes
Partners of high-risk women
Many studies have looked at the psychological effects in women of having a high risk of developing cancer, either on the basis of carrying a BRCA1/BRCA2 mutation or having a strong family history of cancer. Some studies have also examined the effects on the partners of such women.
A Canadian study assessed 59 spouses of women found to have a BRCA1/BRCA2 mutation. All were supportive of their spouses' decision to undergo genetic testing and 17% wished they had been more involved in the genetic testing process. Spouses who reported that genetic testing had no impact on their relationship had long-term relationships (mean duration 27 years). Forty-six percent of spouses reported that their major concern was of their partner dying of cancer. Nineteen percent were concerned their spouse would develop cancer and 14% were concerned their children would also be BRCA1/BRCA2 mutation carriers.
In a U.S. study, 118 partners of women undergoing genetic testing for mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 completed a survey prior to testing and then again 6 months following result disclosure. At 6 months, only 10 partners reported that they had not been told of the test result. Ninety-one percent reported that the testing had not caused strain on their relationship. Partners who were comfortable sharing concerns prior to testing experienced less distress following testing. Protective buffering was not found to impact distress levels of partners.
An Australian study of 95 unaffected women at high risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer (13 mutation carriers and 82 with unknown mutation status) and their partners showed that although the majority of male partners had distress levels comparable to a normative population sample, 10% had significant levels of distress that indicated the need for further clinical intervention. Men with a high monitoring coping style and greater perceived breast cancer risk for their wives reported higher levels of distress. Open communication between the men and their partners and the occurrence of a cancer-related event in the wife's family in the last year were associated with lower distress levels. When men were asked what kind of information and support they would like for themselves and their partners, 57.9% reported that they would like more information about breast and ovarian cancer, and 32.6% said they would like more support in dealing with their partner's risk. Twenty-five percent of men had suggestions on how to improve services for partners of high-risk women, including strategies on how to best support their partner, greater encouragement from health care professionals to attend appointments, and meeting with other partners.
A review of this literature reported that the BRCA testing process may be distressing for male partners, particularly for those with spouses identified as carriers. Male partner distress appears to be associated with their beliefs about the woman's breast cancer risk, lack of couple communication, and feelings of alienation from the testing process.