Theses Doctoral

Variants of Significance? The Production and Management of Genetic Risk for Breast and Ovarian Cancer in the Era of Multi-Gene Panel Testing

Popkin, Ronna

This dissertation examines the production and management of genetic risk for breast and ovarian cancer in the United States in the new era of multi-gene panel testing. Drawing on three years of ethnographic fieldwork and in-depth interviews with genetics health professionals and women with mutations, this project is the first social science study to examine how breast and ovarian cancer genetic risk is constructed and managed among women with variants of uncertain significance or moderate-risk mutations. Moving beyond an individual-level focus on women’s risk management decisions, this project instead explores how the structures, practices, and organization of genetic medicine constrain and enable those decisions.
There are four key findings from this study. First, the adoption of panel testing has shifted the boundaries of risk, disease, and patienthood and contributed to a spectrum of medicalization of breast and ovarian cancer risk. Women with high-risk breast and ovarian cancer mutations are now typically viewed and treated like full patients with a "disease," while women with moderate-risk mutations occupy a liminal space of qualified patienthood. Second, the structures and organization of genetic medicine in the United States point women with breast and ovarian cancer mutations toward risk-reducing mastectomy and breast reconstruction and encourage choosing those surgical responses over breast surveillance or staying flat. Mastectomy has become the standard “treatment” for the “disease” of genetic risk for breast cancer, regardless of whether women have high- or moderate-risk mutations and despite more conservative recommendations in clinical guidelines.
Third, the structures of genetic medicine and the contemporary gender order in the United States are mutually constituted and co-produced. Breast reconstruction and gynecologic surgery practices both emerge from and reinforce gendered social and cultural norms that prioritize women's appearance and their reproductive capacity over their embodied experiences and daily quality of life. Finally, the discourses and practices of genetic medicine leave many women un- or under-prepared for the duration and severity of the side effects and consequences associated with breast reconstruction and risk-reducing salpingo-oophorectomy. By closely examining the social and structural dimensions of how cancer genetic risk is produced and managed in the United States, this project illuminates how clinical practices that magnify and focus on reducing certain risks simultaneously obscure and generate exposure to others.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Sociomedical Sciences
Thesis Advisors
Vance, Carole
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 3, 2019