Family discussions about cancer impact upon genetic test decisions

In collaboration with the Press Association

A new preliminary study has suggested that the extent to which family members talk about their family's history of cancer has an impact on people's attitudes towards the disease. It may even play a role in an individual's decision as to whether or not to undergo genetic testing.

Researchers at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Centre in Washington DC interviewed 105 women, including white and African American women.

None of the women had shown signs of breast cancer in the past, but each had at least one relative with breast or ovarian cancer.

Participants were asked about their cancer history, whether they felt they were at risk, the extent to which they had discussed the disease with their doctors and families, and how much they knew about counselling and testing for the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, which are responsible for around one quarter of hereditary breast cancer cases.

Dr Kristi Graves, a clinical psychologist in the Cancer Control programme at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Centre, revealed that there was no difference in knowledge or attitudes between African American and white women. "We did observe a difference, however, among women who said their families discussed their cancer history versus those families who didn't discuss cancer," she said. "We asked the women if they had talked with their relatives about the family's history of breast cancer. The more family members the women talked with, the greater the level of knowledge about genetic counselling and testing." Dr Graves also said that women who perceived themselves to be at high risk of breast cancer tended to have less positive attitudes towards genetic testing. Previous studies have shown that African Americans are less likely to go for genetic testing and also tend to be diagnosed at a later stage of breast cancer when the disease is harder to treat. The researchers now hope to build on these early findings, which were presented at a meeting of the American Society for Preventive Oncology, in order to better understand why fewer African Americans participate in genetic testing and to see whether uptake increases after women are provided with educational materials.