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Narratives of breast symptom discovery and cancer diagnosis: Psychologic risk for advanced cancer at diagnosis

Facione, Noreen C. Ph.D., R.N., F.N.P.; Giancarlo, Carol Ann Ph.D.


In spite of cancer screening programs, women continue to present with advanced breast cancer. How do women decide whether and when to seek an evaluation for self-discovered symptoms? This study examined 104 narratives told by 80 Anglo-, Latina-, and African-American women who participated in 1 of 16 community-based focus groups. The women's narratives contained powerful the-matic messages about breast cancer and their expected behavior in the event of a self-discovered breast symptom. Narrative explanations that predicted an increased likelihood of advanced disease at diagnosis included these factors: incorrect symptom attributions and risk estimations; reluctance to consider the threat posed by the symptom; failure to tell another person about the symptom; and expectations of abandonment by male partners, deportation, prejudice, and refusal of treatment due to poverty.

Stories of advanced breast cancer also told of reliance on alternative healing, concerns about overwhelming family resources, and extreme modesty that inhibited obtaining a physical examination. Interventions aimed at earlier detection of breast cancer must connect with the beliefs and assumptions embedded in these narratives, provide pragmatic solutions for perceived constraints on seeking evaluations of self-discovered symptoms, and explore the use of community narratives to confirm the value of early detection of breast cancer.

Dr. Noreen C. Facione is Adjunct Assistant Professor, Physiological Nursing, University of California, San Francisco, California, U.S.A.

Dr. Carol Ann Giancarlo is Assistant Professor, Liberal Studies and Education, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, CA, U.S.A.

Address correspondence and reprint requests to Dr. Noreen C. Facione, Box 0610, School of Nursing, University of California, San Francisco, CA 94143-0610, U.S.A.

Accepted for publication March 18, 1998.

© 1998 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.