What People Bring to Genetic Testing: Impact of Risk Perception, Health Beliefs, and Personality Characteristics
The emerging literature in this area suggests that risk perceptions, health beliefs, psychological status, and personality characteristics are important factors in decision-making about breast/ovarian cancer genetic testing. Many women presenting at academic centers for BRCA1/BRCA2 testing arrive with a strong belief that they have a mutation, having decided they want genetic testing, but possessing little information about the risks or limitations of testing. Most mean scores of psychological functioning at baseline for subjects in genetic counseling studies were within normal limits. Nonetheless, a subset of subjects in many genetic counseling studies present with elevated anxiety, depression, or cancer worry.[39,40] Identification of these individuals is essential to prevent adverse outcomes. In a study of 205 women pursuing genetic counseling, interactions among cancer worry, breast cancer risk perception, and perceived severity of having a breast cancer gene mutation were found such that those with high worry, high breast cancer risk perception, and low perceived severity were twice as likely to follow through with BRCA1/BRCA2 testing than others.
A general tendency to overestimate inherited risk of breast and ovarian cancer has been noted in at-risk populations,[42,43,44] in cancer patients,[43,45,46] in spouses of breast and ovarian cancer patients, and among women in the general population,[48,49,50] but underestimation of breast cancer risk in higher-risk and average-risk women also has been reported. This overestimation may encourage a belief that BRCA1/BRCA2 genetic testing will be more informative than it is currently thought to be. There is some evidence that even counseling does not dissuade women at low to moderate risk from the belief that BRCA1 testing could be valuable. Overestimation of both breast and ovarian cancer risk has been associated with nonadherence to physician-recommended screening practices.[52,53] A meta-analysis of 12 studies of outcomes of genetic counseling for breast/ovarian cancer showed that counseling improved the accuracy of risk perception.
Women appear to be the prime communicators within families about the family history of breast cancer. Higher numbers of maternal versus paternal transmission cases are reported, likely due to family communication patterns, to the misconception that breast cancer risk can only be transmitted through the mother, and to the greater difficulty in recognizing paternal family histories because of the need to identify more distant relatives with cancer. Physicians and counselors taking a family history are encouraged to elicit paternal and maternal family histories of breast, ovarian, or other associated cancers.
The accuracy of reported family history of breast or ovarian cancer varies; some studies found levels of accuracy above 90%,[57,58] with others finding more errors in the reporting of cancer in second-degree or more distant relatives  or in age of onset of cancer. Less accuracy has been found in the reporting of cancers other than breast cancer. Ovarian cancer history was reported with 60% accuracy in one study compared with 83% accuracy in breast cancer history. Providers should be aware that there are a few published cases of Munchausen syndrome in reporting of false family breast cancer history. Much more common is erroneous reporting of family cancer history due to unintentional errors or gaps in knowledge, related in some cases to the early death of potential maternal informants about cancer family history. (Refer to the Taking a Family History section of the Cancer Genetics Risk Assessment and Counseling summary for more information.)