, Volume 21, Issue 7, pp 779-785

“Why take it if you don’t have anything?” breast cancer risk perceptions and prevention choices at a public hospital

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BACKGROUND: Despite advances in breast cancer risk assessment and risk reduction technologies, little is still known about how high-risk women make sense of their risk and assess prevention options, particularly among minority and low-income women. Qualitative methods explore the complex meanings and logics of risk and prevention that quantitative approaches overlook.

OBJECTIVE: This study examined how women attending a high risk breast cancer clinic at a public hospital conceptualize their breast cancer risk and think about the prevention options available to them.

METHODS: Semi-structured interviews were used to gather data from 33 high-risk women (75% African American) between May and August 2004. Interview transcripts were analyzed for recurrent themes and patterns.

RESULTS: Despite general awareness of their objective risk status, many women in this study reported they did not feel “high risk” because they lacked signs and symptoms of cancer. Risk was described as an experienced acute problem rather than a statistical possibility. Women also frequently stated that thinking about cancer might cause it to happen and so it is better not to “dwell on it.” While screening was welcomed, women were generally skeptical about primary prevention. In particular, preventive therapies were perceived to cause problems and were only acceptable as treatment options for a disease.

CONCLUSIONS: The body of ideas about risk and prevention expressed by this population differ from the medical model. These findings have implications for risk perception research as well as for the efficacy of risk communication and prevention counseling in clinical contexts.

A poster of this research was presented at the Department of Defense 2005 Era of Hope meeting (June 8–11, 2005, Philadelphia, PA) as a grant requirement and at the Preventive Medicine 2005 conference (February 17–20, 2005, Washington, DC) as a requirement upon winning the competition for “Best Paper in Preventive Medicine by a Medical Student.”
This research was funded by a pre-doctoral grant from the Breast Cancer Research Program, Department of Defense Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (Award #W81XWH-04-1-0333). Dr. Olopade is a Doris Duke Distinguished Clinical Scientist.