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The cancer lens: how a woman’s experience witnessing cancer’s effects influences her decision to seek prevention

Ohio State researchers found a woman’s experience with cancer to greatly shape her views and approaches to preventative care.  Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

The way a woman experiences the cancer of a loved one plays a significant role in how she views and approaches potential cancer in her own life, according to a new study conducted by Ohio State researchers.

The research team conducted in-depth interviews with 50 women who have a heightened risk of breast cancer. Participants were allotted time to talk as long as they wanted, and were asked what they thought about their elevated risk for breast cancer, their health decisions based on the risk and how all aspects of their lives played into their choices around cancer.

The researchers found as they conducted interviews that women viewed their own cancer differently depending on the experiences they’ve had with loved ones with the disease, a concept that surprised the study’s lead author.

“This is an idea that I didn’t have going into this study. It came out of women’s own stories, which is part of what this study was designed to do” said Tasleem Padamsee, an assistant professor of health services management and policy and lead author of the study.

The open-ended nature of the study created opportunity for new insights to arise and then to be followed up on.

The secondhand exposures, by way of observing relatives or other loved ones with the disease, were observed to have an impact on how women thought about cancer and how they interpreted doctors’ advice.

Tasleem Padamsee, an assistant professor of health services management and policy and lead author of the study.

“We catalogued the sort of cancer women were exposed to, and then we were able to find that it affected their own behavior,” Padamsee said.

When asked about prevention tactics, most women said they were proactive about monitoring their bodies. The women who knew for certain they had a gene mutation or had experienced cancer-related trauma were more likely to consider interventions and preventions such as doctor visits. Those who had the BRCA mutation were more likely to take preventative action, regardless of how close their experience was with a love one’s cancer.

Participants who had traumatic experiences with cancer were found to be as careful about surveillance as others in the study, but were more anxious about regularly undergoing preventative screenings.

“A lot of these stories are about their mom dying when they were young or a best friend dying and they had to watch the whole thing,” Padamsee said. “That trauma really changes a woman’s perceptions of what cancer is.”

The researchers also found a difference in the ways that white women and black women view cancer and the severity of it. Of the 50 participants, 30 were white while the other 20 were black. Researchers found black women were more likely to view cancer as more severe. However, due to the small nature of the sample, Padamsee and her team will be exploring this difference and looking at a bigger sample size in the future.

Padamsee said the openness to the study’s structure allowed for women’s voices to remain prominent.

“I wanted a research design that would enable me to really hear women’s voices, and knowing that if I asked them very concrete questions I wouldn’t really get to know what is going on with them, and so the idea was to do these open-ended interviews, give them an opportunity to talk, and let them tell us whatever they wanted to tell us,”  Padamsee said.

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