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Healthy women from suspected hereditary breast and ovarian cancer families: the significant others in their lives

Authors


Regina Kenen, Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, College of New Jersey, PO Box 7718, Ewing, NJ 08628, USA (e-mail: kenen@tcnj.edu).

Abstract

This paper investigates communication and interactions between healthy women from families with a history of breast/ovarian cancer and five statuses of significant others: (1) women friends; (2) sisters; (3) brothers; (4) male partners; and (5) children in order to better understand the way the family deals with cancer genetics risk information and the extent of social support available to its members. We conducted a research ethics committee reviewed exploratory, qualitative study at a major clinical and research cancer centre in the United Kingdom from January to June 2000. Twenty-one semi-structured, in-depth interviews were conducted using a purposive sample of women coming to the cancer genetics risk clinic for the first time, supplemented by 5 months of participant observation. On the whole, women friends consistently provided strong social support. Sisters were usually close, but communication about the breast/ovarian cancer in their family in some cases was quite limited and fraught with emotional overtones. Brothers were the most difficult to relate to regarding cancer in the family and seemed almost to exist in a different ‘interrelational space’. The women claimed that their male partners were supportive, but with caveats. Mothers worried about how much information and at what age they should inform their children about the specifics of the family history of breast/ovarian cancer and tried to protect them when they were young. The women were very concerned about their daughters and granddaughters, but were far less concerned about the impact on their sons.

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