It’s not always beneficial to feel in control of your illness

Feeling in control of your illness is normally considered a good thing – research shows it means you’re more likely to take constructive, pro-active steps to cope and more likely to engage in health-promoting behaviours.

But now Carolyn Fang and colleagues have looked at the specific case of women who are at dramatically increased risk of developing ovarian cancer because they have one or more close relatives with the disease. Fang’s team found those women who felt more in control of the possibility of developing cancer, and who actively engaged in problem-focused coping strategies, actually suffered more distress over time and were less likely to attend ovarian cancer screening.

Why might this be? Possibly because feeling in control is only beneficial if it matches reality. Unfortunately, there is currently little that a woman at risk of hereditary ovarian cancer can do to protect herself against developing the disease (but see here). “The subgroup of women who perceived high control and reported high levels of problem-focused coping may have become increasingly more distressed if their efforts to reduce or manage their cancer risk did not lead to actual changes in risk”, the researchers said.

Consistent with this, the women in this study who felt in control, but who didn’t pursue problem-focused coping strategies, did not experience increased distress over time – perhaps because they were “not faced with their subsequent failure to control or alter the health threat”.

But why would the women with high-perceived control and active coping strategies be less likely to attend cancer screening? Perhaps because of the increased distress they were experiencing – this would fit with past research. The researchers said “Health professionals should be aware that, although some women may appear to be actively coping with and managing their cancer risk well, [they] may be less likely to adhere to recommended ovarian cancer-screening regimens”.

The findings come from a three month follow-up of 80 women enrolled on a family risk assessment programme at a cancer centre, all of whom had one or more immediate relatives with ovarian cancer.

Fang, C.Y., Daly, M.B., Miller, S.M., Zerr, T., Malick, J. & Engstrom, P. (2006). Coping with ovarian cancer risk: The moderating effects of perceived control on coping an adjustment. British Journal of Health Psychology, 11, 561-580.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to UK-based ovarian cancer support network.

2 thoughts on “It’s not always beneficial to feel in control of your illness”

  1. I suggest that another possible interpretation of the findings is that if you focus on something, you tend to create it as reality. The group who claim to be in control, may or may not be ‘in control’ at all. If in fact they ‘fear’ or focus on ‘not having’ that they may develop this problem, then this is not positive control. I call it the ‘pink elephant effect’; try to not think of a pink elephant, right now. It’s not possible to not think about something you are trying to not think about… Which is focus ON that very thing. Effective positive control would include a strong belief, held at both the inconscious level and conscious level, along the line that ‘I am totally free of this’, or ‘this does not affect me’. This is quite different from ‘ it is hereditary [and therefore I am at risk]) and I must work to stave it off’. You couold say that they are indeed ‘in control’ – of increasing the chances that they develop the problem.

  2. Ovarian cancer is a silent killer and is one of the deadliest threats to women’s health. The American Cancer Society says that about 20,180 American women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer this year alone. Every woman faces a risk of 1:57 risk of getting ovarian cancer in her lifetime.-Jeanette

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