In Brief

New research refutes the assumption that fear dissuades women at high risk for ovarian and breast cancer from undergoing genetic testing.

In the study, "Distress and psychiatric morbidity among women from high-risk breast and ovarian cancer families," James C. Coyne, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania, led a team of researchers who found that high-risk women display levels of cancer-related concern equivalent to that of low-risk women.

The 464 women chosen from the University of Pennsylvania Health Care System's "Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer study" to participate in the research were either in remission themselves or had family members diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer. The subjects were screened for psychological distress, fears associated with cancer and prior or extant psychiatric disorders.

The high-risk women, regardless of whether they actually contracted breast or ovarian cancer, manifested minimal signs of psychosomatic turmoil or illness. In effect, the scores for high-risk subjects who were never diagnosed were lower than those of low-risk women. The authors concluded that women at high-risk for cancer "weren't any more likely to suffer from major depression or from an anxiety disorder."

Even those who screened positive for mental distress "still were nonetheless no more likely to be clinically depressed than unscreened women in a primary-care setting." Barring those with clinical disorders, high-risk subjects who displayed mental anguish soon improved and did not require ongoing psychological and pharmacological therapy.

Coyne has a theory explaining why women at high risk for breast and ovarian cancer are not overly apprehensive: "The experience of living with a familial risk of cancer may have instilled the psychological resources and resilience that may compensate for the vulnerability felt with being at risk for cancer."

The study--one of the first of its kind--thus implies that both high-risk women and patients surviving breast and ovarian cancer are not necessarily psychologically maladjusted.

The study appears in the October issue of APA's Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (Vol. 68, No. 5).