The role of illness representations in coping and health of patients treated for breast cancer



Objective: The present study examined the relation of cognitive and emotional representations of illness specified by the Common Sense Model of Illness Cognition (Handbook of Psychology and Health: Social Psychological Aspects of Health. Earlbaum, Hillsdale: New York, 1984; 219–252) with the coping strategies and perceived health of patients who were treated for breast cancer.

Methods: Participants were 119 women within 2 years after their diagnosis of breast cancer, who completed a questionnaire containing measures of illness representations, coping strategies and perceived physical and mental health.

Results: Breast cancer patients differ in the subjective perception of their disease. Patients who view their illness as a condition with serious symptoms and consequences, patients who believe their illness is chronic and patients who consider their illness uncontrollable were found to report worse physical and mental health than those who believed the opposite. Regression analysis showed that, after controlling for external variables, the cognitive illness representations identity and consequences explained 57% of variance in physical health, whereas emotional illness representation and treatment control explained 47% of variance in mental health.

Conclusion: Results provide some support for the hypotheses of the Common Sense Model of Illness Cognition. Illness representations seem to play an important role in perceived health in breast cancer. The implications of these findings for the design of health-care-related interventions for breast cancer patients are discussed. Copyright © 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.