Breast Cancer: What Women Don’t Know

Breast cancer patients may not have knowledge about their illness, which can affect their treatment decisions

(RxWiki News) Breast cancer can be a mind-boggling diagnosis. Patients are often faced with questions about therapy, medication and recovery options at each turn. What women know and tell their doctors about their cancer may make a difference in treatment.

A new study found that many women with breast cancer were not always informed about their illness.

The authors of this study — led by Rachel A. Freedman, MD, of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston — noted the need to educate women carefully about their health conditions so they can make better decisions about treatment with their doctors.

“Our results illustrate the lack of understanding many patients have about their cancers and have identified a critical need for improved patient education and provider awareness of this issue,” Dr. Freedman said in a press release. “Improving patients’ understanding about why a particular treatment is important for her individual situation may lead to more informed decisions and better adherence to treatment.”

Dr. Freedman and team asked around 500 breast cancer patients what they thought they knew about their own cancers. Fourteen percent said they knew and understood all the major characteristics of their tumors. However, only 8 percent could answer the researchers' questions correctly.

Minority women were less likely than white women to know their tumor characteristics, Dr. Freedman and colleagues found. Factors that appeared to be tied to patients having knowledge of their breast cancer included higher educational attainment and household income.

What a woman knows about her cancer can be an important factor in her decisions about care. For instance, certain kinds of tumors respond better to radiation. Others respond better to chemotherapy. If a woman doesn’t understand the significance of this issue, she may push for a treatment that is less effective.

To be health-literate, a woman must have reading, listening, analytical and decision-making skills, says the Institute of Medicine. She must be able to access health services, analyze relative risks and benefits, calculate dosages, communicate with health care providers, assess information and interpret test results.

Patients can help themselves by asking questions until they are sure they understand. Take notes, write down questions and discuss them with a doctor.

This study was published online Jan. 26 in the journal Cancer.

The Komen for the Cure Foundation funded this research. Dr. Freedman and team disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
January 23, 2015