Introduction: Inequalities in cancer outcomes continue to exist throughout the world. In Australia, rural women diagnosed with breast cancer have significantly poorer 5-year survival with variations in clinical management additionally observed. While factors impacting clinical management have been identified, there is little understanding about the factors that influence treatment decisions of women diagnosed with breast cancer.
Methods: A mixed-methods study was conducted with women diagnosed with either pre-invasive, or invasive breast cancer in Australia. The study included qualitative interviews and an online survey utilising Breast Cancer Network Australia’s (BCNA) membership. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with rural women focusing on topics such as decision-making and factors influencing this. The online survey amongst metropolitan and rural (included regional, remote, very remote) women examined involvement in, and preference for, decision-making, and to what degree certain factors influenced treatment decisions. Sociodemographics included age, residential location, education and household income. Qualitative interviews were analysed using NVivo and descriptive analyses were used to examine differences in frequency distributions across survey questions by residential location and age group for the online survey. Multivariable logistic regression analysis was conducted to examine factors associated with treatment decision-making.
Results: Nine women participated in the qualitative interviews and 815 (365 metropolitan and 450 rural) completed the online survey. Interviews found most women concurred with the recommendations of their doctor(s) and did not see this experience as making a decision. In the online survey, 83.2% of women indicated at least some involvement in the decision-making with this being similar between rural and metropolitan women. Compared to women educated at an under- or post-graduate level, those educated at high school or less were about 50% less likely to be involved in treatment decision(s) (OR=0.51, 95% CI=0.30-0.86). In both interviews and the online survey factors having the strongest influence on treatment decisions centred around survival and reducing risk of progression or recurrence. Significantly more rural, compared to metropolitan women, indicated their decision was strongly influenced by treatment service location (42.8% and 28.1%, respectively, p <0.001). Rural women more frequently cited financial costs of treatment influenced their decision compared to metropolitan women (30.4% and 21.3%, respectively, p=0.04). Significantly fewer rural, (16.2%) compared to metropolitan (23.6%) women, had breast reconstruction (p=0.009). The option of having reconstructive surgery was less frequently cited as influencing treatment decisions for rural compared to metropolitan women (27.7% versus 44.1% respectively, p <0.001).
Conclusions: The treatment decisions of the majority of women were strongly influenced by the need to do everything possible to get better, however rural women additionally indicated their decisions were also influenced by factors such as access to treatment services and the financial costs of treatment. Addressing travel and costs issues for rural women with breast cancer should be prioritised. Additionally, the finding that women with lower levels of education were significantly less likely to be involved in the decision-making process, highlights the need to develop new or tailor existing resources. Further work could also examine the reasons why rural women are less likely to consider breast reconstruction important in decision making.