Variation in the levels of distress in women at increased risk of breast cancer has been reported, yet there is limited understanding of the factors that are associated with heightened distress in this population. This study took a theoretical approach using Leventhal's Self Regulatory Model (SRM) to understand variation in distress levels. The study examined the associations between perceptions of breast cancer and distress in women at increased risk of breast cancer, and a comparison sample with no experience of the disease in their social environment. Questionnaire data from 117 women at increased risk of breast cancer and 100 comparison women were analysed. Women at increased risk of breast cancer showed comparable levels of general distress but significantly higher levels of cancer specific distress than the comparison group. There were few differences in illness perceptions between the samples, although a number of cognitive perceptions of breast cancer were related to both general and cancer specific distress in the increased risk sample, but not in the comparison sample. The results suggest that the SRM provides a useful framework to explore the psychological response to genetic risk. Further research is required in this population to examine illness perceptions in more detail, validate quantitative measures of illness perceptions, and examine interactions between risk perception and the SRM constructs.
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