Communication as a Tool to Address Hereditary Cancer

By Marleah Dean Kruzel, PhD

August 26, 2016

Copyright: Marleah Dean Kruzel
Cancer is a word that produces fear like no other disease.

According to the American Cancer Society, cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. and worldwide. For example, women have a 12% chance of developing breast cancer and a 1% chance of developing ovarian cancer.

Yet individuals who test positive for a harmful BRCA genetic mutation are at a significantly increased lifetime risk of developing hereditary breast and ovarian cancer (HBOC).

According to a recent study published in the Journal of National Cancer Institute, BRCA1 positive carriers have between a 40–87% chance of developing breast cancer and 22–65% chance of developing ovarian cancer during their lifetime. BRCA2 carriers have between an 18–87% of developing breast cancer and a 10–35% chance of developing ovarian cancer during their lifetime.

These statistics particularly resonant with me as I tested positive for BRCA2 three Augusts ago (You can read more about my own story here).

Whether an individual with a high genetic risk, a patient diagnosed with HBOC, or a family member supporting such patient, communication is key to accurate monitoring and diagnosis, effective treatment, and survivorship. Research has found patient-centered communication and care produces better health outcomes such as cure/survival, emotional well-being, quality of life, and others (You can read the National Cancer Institute’s full report regarding this connection between patient-centered communication and health outcomes here).

Communication is a tool. One that not only improves patient and organizational health outcomes but also can enhance patients’ and their families’ healthcare experiences.

To achieve these goals and desired outcomes, the following research program guides my work.


  1. Capture the health journey of BRCA-positive patients and their families in order to improve healthcare interactions and communication about health.
  2. Promote effective communication between patients and their families regarding hereditary cancer risk, prevention, and coping.
  3. Advocate for patient-centered communication among patients, families, and healthcare providers.
  4. Partner with individuals and their families affected by hereditary cancer to ensure research translates to clinical care and practice.
  5. Develop interventions and tools to improve patient-provider communication, patients’ health experiences, and overall health outcomes.

My hope is — by investigating what patient-centered communication looks like in medical encounters between healthcare providers, patients, and family members — then eventually, the word cancer may not be as scary as we think.

Please Consider…

A portion of this content was originally published on my website Cancer Communication Research. If you would like to learn more about my research, visit: You can also sign up for my monthly research updates by registering here. Last, if you found this article helpful, please share it on social media, so we can continue to have public dialogues about research and teaching.


Dr. Marleah Dean Kruzel (PhD, Texas A&M University) is an Assistant Professor in Health Communication at the University of South Florida. She studies patient-provider and family communication about hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. A BRCA2-positive patient herself, Marleah is committed to translating her research into practice, which is why she volunteers for Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered (FORCE) and maintains a blog called “The Patient and The Professor.” For more information, visit her website: You can also follow her Twitter.