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Psychosocial Issues in Inherited Breast Cancer Syndromes


Some studies have examined reactions to BRCA testing several years following the receipt of results. Two U.S.-based studies have reported similar findings among women who were surveyed more than 3 years after receipt of BRCA test results.[105,106] In a cross-sectional study, 167 women who were surveyed more than 4 years after receiving BRCA test results reported low levels of genetic testing–specific concerns, as measured using the Multidimensional Impact of Cancer Risk Assessment Scale.[107] Approximately 74% of women reported no distress; 41% reported no uncertainty about their cancer risk, screening decisions, and options for risk management and prevention; and 51% reported positive experiences suggestive of low adverse reactions pertaining to family support and communication.[105] In multivariate regression models, mutation carriers were significantly more likely to experience distress than were noncarriers. Time since disclosure of test result significantly predicted uncertainty but not distress, such that more time since disclosure corresponded to less uncertainty. In a second study, 464 women were followed prospectively for a median of 5 years (range: 3.4–9.1 years) after testing. Among both affected and unaffected participants, BRCA carriers reported significantly higher levels of distress, uncertainty (affected only), perceived stress (affected only), and lower positive testing experiences (unaffected only) than women who received negative results.[106] Although both studies reported greater distress among BRCA carriers than among noncarriers, the level of distress was not reflective of clinically significant dysfunction.

A prospective Australian study evaluated the psychological impact of genetic testing at baseline, 7 to 10 days, 4 months, and 12 months in 60 women of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage (ten with breast cancer, 50 unaffected). Of the 43 women who opted to learn their test results, 97% felt pleased to have had the test and, at 12 months of follow-up, none regretted having been tested. Seventeen women opted not to receive their results and had significantly lower levels of breast cancer anxiety than did those who opted to receive their results. Women with no history of cancer who opted to learn their results showed a progressive decrease in breast cancer anxiety over the 12-month study period compared with baseline measures. There was also no statistically significant difference in measures of depression and generalized anxiety from baseline to the follow-up assessments.[108] However, these results must be interpreted in light of the fact that only 7 of 43 women had deleterious mutations.

Despite generally positive findings regarding diminished distress in tested individuals, most studies also report increased distress among small subsets of tested individuals. Most, but not all, of these increases are within the normal range of distress. Increased distress has been noted by individuals receiving both positive and negative test results. Studies suggest that the psychological impact of an individual test result is highly influenced by the test result status of other family members. A 1999 study found that an individual's response to learning his or her own BRCA1/BRCA2 test result was significantly influenced by his or her gender and by the genetic test result status of other family members. Adverse, immediate outcomes were experienced by male carriers who were the first tested in their family or by noncarrier men whose siblings were all positive. In addition, female carriers who were the first in their families to be tested or whose siblings were all negative had significantly higher distress than other female carriers.[80] Another study found that spousal anxiety about genetic testing and supportiveness differentiated the impact of BRCA1/BRCA2 test results. When the spouse was highly anxious and unsupportive in style, the mutation carrier had significantly higher levels of distress. These studies illustrate that genetic test results are not received in a vacuum, and that researchers need to consider the context of the tested individual in determining which individuals applying for genetic testing may require additional emotional support.[81]


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