Perception of risk may lead to more cancer screening

Mammography screening rates may be increased by better sensitizing women to their risk of getting breast cancer, says a new University of Waterloo study.

“Helping to create the perception that you are susceptible may be effective at prompting high-risk individuals to get screened,” said co-author Mark Oremus, a public health professor. “It’s another tool that public health officials and physicians doing routine check-ups can use.”

Mammmography machine used for breast cancer screenings.

The study used data from 1,803 women aged 35 to 70 from the Alberta Tomorrow Project, a population-based survey that focuses on the causes of cancer and other chronic diseases. It found that the odds of getting screened were higher for women who rated their personal perceived risk high, compared to those who rated it low.

More than 26,000 Canadian women were diagnosed with cancer in 2017, and of these, 5,000 were predicted to die from the disease. Systematic screening can decrease the number of deaths.

“We were able to find a link between a person’s perceived susceptibility of developing cancer to being screened for mammography,” said first author Meghan Gilfoyle, who is now studying in Ireland. “This allows health practitioners, policy makers and communities to better understand why people may choose a particular health behaviour, such as being screened for breast cancer.”

Personalized health promotion efforts can be applied in jurisdictions where screening rates are low. “Traditional routes of awareness campaigns to enhance uptake may not be effectively reaching some individuals,” Gilfoyle said. “This type of personalized medicine can be a tool for promoting screening.” She said this approach would not unduly alarm low-risk women because it is not directed at them.

“From a public health perspective, we want to encourage everyone who needs to get screened to do so,” Oremus said. “This study showed that if physicians in their offices can plant the seed in a high-risk individual’s mind that they are susceptible, it can make a difference.”

The study, “Perceived susceptibility to developing cancer and mammography screening behaviour: a cross-sectional analysis of Alberta’s Tomorrow Project,” was co-authored by Meghan Gilfoyle, John Garcia, Ashok Chaurasia and Mark Oremus. The study appears in the journal Public Health.

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