Many patients misunderstand when their healthcare providers use terms
such as high or low to explain their cancer
risks, according to a Mayo Clinic study published in the August 2000
issue of the Journal of Psychosocial Oncology.
People are making decisions based on what they perceive their
risk of cancer to be, commented Marlene Frost, PhD, a Mayo
Clinic nurse researcher and the studys principal investigator.
If they underestimate their risk, they might not be doing the
screening they should be. For those who overestimate their risk, the
potential emotional ramifications present a problemthey may
experience unnecessary psychological distress. These findings
highlight the need for the individual seeking information about
cancer risk to ask questions about their specific risk and how that
risk compares to the risk of the general population.
Communication and Misinterpretation
The study confirms that many individuals do not comprehend the
concepts of general population risk for cancer or how much that risk
is increased by having a family history of cancer. This research
underscores the need for health-care providers to offer sufficient
background information so that people can better understand the
meaning of their risk assessment.
The Mayo Clinic study of 78 women included 39 individuals with a
cancer diagnosis and 39 individuals without a cancer diagnosis. Prior
to actual risk evaluation, the women without a cancer diagnosis were
asked about their lifetime risks. The results show a dramatic lack of
agreement between the participants qualitative and quantitative
assessments of their lifetime cancer risks, with participants
reporting a wide percentage range of risk for each qualitative level.
The 28 individuals who reported their risk as high
defined that risk as ranging from 16% to 88% over their lifetimes.
Among the other findings of the study, the majority of individuals
reported an increase in their stress levels as a result of viewing
themselves at increased risk for cancer.