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More women get tested for breast cancer genes thanks to 'Angelina Jolie effect'

19 December 2016

By Anastassia Bolotkova

Appeared in BioNews 882

Angelina Jolie's 2013 public announcement that she has the BRCA1 breast cancer gene led to a 64 percent increase in women seeking genetic testing for breast cancer, according to a new analysis.

However, the rate of preventative mastectomies following testing went down, suggesting that her announcement did not reach those women most at risk.

Back in 2013, the actress wrote an editorial in the New York Times describing how she had tested positive for the BRCA1 mutation and that she had decided to have a double mastectomy to avoid breast cancer. She encouraged other at risk women to get tested. Now, a study published in the BMJ has investigated the effect of her announcement.

'Her editorial was very effective in terms of raising awareness about this test, which had not been widely used at the time,' said Dr Sunita Desai of Harvard Medical School, who was a co-author of the study.

The rates of BRCA1 and BRCA2 testing and mastectomy were analysed in 100,000 US women 15 days before and 15 days after Jolie's publication on 14 May 2013. The researchers also compared mastectomy rates before and after the editorial, overall, and in 60 days after gene testing.

Although there was a 64 percent increase in daily BRCA tests, there was no rise in the rates of mastectomy. In fact, the surgery rate fell from ten to seven percent.

'We feel that this suggests that women who underwent BRCA testing as a result of the editorial had fewer risk factors and so a lower probability of having the BRCA mutation than women tested before the editorial,' said Dr Desai.

Jasmine Just, health information officer at Cancer Research UK, said that celebrities can influence the people by promoting their understanding of cancer and how to prevent the disease: '[But] the results suggest the extra tests did not result in finding more women at a higher risk and who therefore could benefit from preventive surgery. So, while celebrities can help reach a lot of people, they may not necessarily reach the group of people who most need the information.'  

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