“It’s Not if I Get Cancer, It’s when I Get Cancer”: BRCA-Positive Patients’ (Un)certain Health Experiences Regarding Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Risk

Document Type


Publication Date



genetic risk, BRCA, hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, communication

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)



Rationale: Women with a harmful mutation in the BReast CAncer (BRCA) gene are at significantly increased risk of developing hereditary breast and ovarian cancer (HBOC) during their lifetime, compared to those without. Such patients—with a genetic predisposition to develop cancer but who have not yet been diagnosed with cancer—live in a constant state of uncertainty and wonder not if they might get cancer but when.

Objective: Framed by uncertainty management theory, the purpose of this study was to explore BRCA-positive patients’ health experiences after testing positive for the BRCA genetic mutation, specifically identifying their sources of uncertainty.

Methods: Thirty-four, qualitative interviews were conducted with female patients. Participants responded to online research postings on the non-profit organization Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered’s (FORCE) message board and social media pages as well as HBOC-specific Facebook groups. The interview data were coded using the constant comparison method.

Results: Two major themes representing BRCA-positive patients’ sources of uncertainty regarding their genetic predisposition and health experiences emerged from the data. Medical uncertainty included the following three subthemes: the unknown future, medical appointments, and personal cancer scares. Familial uncertainty encompassed the subthemes traumatic family cancer memories and motherhood.

Conclusions: Overall, the study supports and extends existing research on uncertainty—revealing uncertainty is inherent in BRCA-positive patients’ health experiences—and offers new insight regarding uncertainty management and HBOC risk.

Was this content written or created while at USF?


Citation / Publisher Attribution

Social Science & Medicine, v. 163, p. 21-27