Background: Patients at higher than average risk of heritable cancer may process risk information differently than the general population. However, little is known about clinical, demographic, or psychosocial predictors that may impact risk perception in these groups. The objective of this study was to characterize factors associated with perceived risk of developing cancer in groups at high risk for cancer based on genetics or family history.Methods: We searched Ovid MEDLINE, Ovid Embase, Ovid PsycInfo, and Scopus from inception through April 2009 for English-language, original investigations in humans using core concepts of "risk" and "cancer." We abstracted key information and then further restricted articles dealing with perceived risk of developing cancer due to inherited risk.Results: Of 1028 titles identified, 53 articles met our criteria. Most (92%) used an observational design and focused on women (70%) with a family history of or contemplating genetic testing for breast cancer. Of the 53 studies, 36 focused on patients who had not had genetic testing for cancer risk, 17 included studies of patients who had undergone genetic testing for cancer risk. Family history of cancer, previous prophylactic tests and treatments, and younger age were associated with cancer risk perception. In addition, beliefs about the preventability and severity of cancer, personality factors such as "monitoring" personality, the ability to process numerical information, as well as distress/worry also were associated with cancer risk perception. Few studies addressed non-breast cancer or risk perception in specific demographic groups (e.g. elderly or minority groups) and few employed theory-driven analytic strategies to decipher interrelationships of factors.Conclusions: Several factors influence cancer risk perception in patients at elevated risk for cancer. The science of characterizing and improving risk perception in cancer for high risk groups, although evolving, is still relatively undeveloped in several key topic areas including cancers other than breast and in specific populations. Future rigorous risk perception research using experimental designs and focused on cancers other than breast would advance the field.
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