A new study suggests unfounded beliefs may impede appropriate care for breast cancer in one out of five women.
University of Michigan researchers found that despite taking a tailored risk assessment tool that factors in family history and personal habits, many women did not believe their breast cancer risk.
Most of the women who didn’t believe their risk numbers said they did not feel it took into account their family history of cancer or their personal health habits. The tool did ask relevant questions about the individual’s family and personal history.
“If people don’t believe their risk numbers, it does not allow them to make informed medical decisions,” said senior study author Angela Fagerlin, Ph.D.
“Women who believe their risk is not high might skip chemoprevention strategies that could significantly reduce their risk. And women who think their risk should be higher could potentially undergo treatments that might not be medically appropriate, which can have long-term ramifications,” she said.
The findings, published in the journal Patient Education and Counseling, are part of a larger study looking at how to improve patients’ understanding of risk information.
For the study, some 690 women who were at above-average risk of developing breast cancer completed a web-based decision aid that included questions about age, ethnicity, personal history of breast cancer, and number of first-degree relatives who had had breast cancer.
The women then were told their five-year risk of developing breast cancer and given information about prevention strategies.
After receiving this information, the women were asked to recall their risk of breast cancer within the next five years. If they answered incorrectly, they were asked why: they forgot, made a rounding error or disagreed with the number.
The researchers found that 22 percent of women who misreported their risk said they disagreed with the numbers.
The most common reason women said they disagreed with their risk was that their family history made them either more or less likely to develop breast cancer.
Many believed that because an aunt or father had cancer, it increased their risk.
Experts say that only first-degree female relatives – mother, sister, daughter – impact a person’s breast cancer risk. Others felt a lack of family history meant their cancer risk should be very low.
One-third of women cited a gut instinct that their risk numbers just seemed too high or too low.
“We’ve put so much fear in people about breast cancer so they feel at high risk,” said lead study author Laura D. Scherer, Ph.D.
“We found that many women assumed certain factors should impact their risk, like cancer history in distant or male relatives, but those factors don’t put a woman at increased risk.
“We have a trend toward personalized medicine and individualized medicine, but if people don’t believe their personalized risk numbers, they’re not going to get the best medical care for them,” said Scherer.