Objective: Illness representations of cancer may comprise inaccurate information, misconceptions, or negative conceptualizations of the disease, which may influence screening behaviors. This study examined the differences between healthy women's and breast cancer patients' representations of breast cancer. Methods: The cross-sectional design involved 147 consecutive women free from breast diseases, or with benign breast conditions, and 102 patients with breast cancer recruited from the outpatient breast clinic of a public cancer hospital. Respondents completed a modified version of the Illness Perception Questionnaire (IPQ) that assessed six dimensions of illness representations of breast cancer. Results: Multiple comparison tests revealed that nonmalignant women's illness representations were characterized by weak beliefs concerning breast cancer curability/controllability, combined with an overestimation of the negative physical, social, and economic consequences of breast cancer. Moreover, these women held stronger beliefs about the role of environmental factors (radiation exposure, diet, and pollution) in breast cancer causation and expressed greater disagreement on the role of chance in the onset and course of the illness. Conclusion: Illness representations of breast cancer appear to play a significant role in determining the unfavorable and exaggerated way in which laywomen perceive breast cancer. This is discussed within the framework of the social construction of the disease, which portrays breast cancer as a fatal and disfiguring disease, and the strong influence lay literature and the media exert on it. © 2005 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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