Genetic counselling cuts fear of breast cancer

Cancer Research UK

Women with a family history of breast cancer are less worried about getting the disease if they have genetic counselling, according to a study1.

Cancer Research UK scientists in Edinburgh and St Andrews have found that women who may be at increased risk of breast cancer will worry significantly less about their chances of getting the disease after being assessed by experts in genetics.

More than 250 women, who were concerned about their risk of breast cancer and sought guidance from their GP, agreed to fill in questionnaires before and after their risk was assessed.

The study found that four weeks after the initial assessment there was a significant drop in the level of worry about cancer. This reduction in anxiety was sustained six months later in a follow-up questionnaire.

Women were asked how often they thought about their chances of developing cancer, and whether these thoughts affected their mood and daily lives.

The study also showed that four weeks after being referred for expert advice the women showed a greater understanding of mammography and genetics.

Dr Robert Rush, from the Cancer Research UK Edinburgh Oncology Unit, who worked on the study, says: "The development of ways in which to screen people for risk of cancer is still fairly new, and criticisms have been raised that these strategies may create rather than reduce anxiety in the general public.

"But this study shows that women identified to be at higher than average risk of developing breast cancer are reassured by the information shared with them, and that the experience is a positive one - as it is obviously intended to be."

The study was initially commissioned to compare the psychological impact on patients of a multi-disciplinary clinic offering cancer genetic risk counselling with a service that provided nurses specialising in genetics operating out of GP's surgeries.

Dr Lesley Walker, Director of Information at Cancer Research UK, says: "It is important to know that cancer genetic services will be of significant psychological value to women with a higher than average risk of breast cancer.

"This study shows that genetic counselling goes a long way towards allaying women's fears."

ENDS

  1. British Journal of Cancer89 (4)

Notes to Editor

Cancer Research UK criteria for assessing a significantly increased risk of breast cancer:

  • A first-degree relative with breast cancer diagnosed under 40 years.
  • Two first or second degree relatives on the same side of the family with breast cancer diagnosed under 60 years or with ovarian cancer.
  • Three first or second degree relatives on the same side of the family with breast or ovarian cancer.
  • A first degree relative with breast cancer in both breasts.
  • A first degree male relative with breast cancer.