Angelina Jolie's decision to openly discuss her preventative double mastectomy after testing positive for a dangerous BRCA1 mutation may have led to a dramatic upswing in referrals to genetic counselling services, if results from a Canadian study are widely applicable.
In the six months after Jolie went public with her decision, clinicians at Sunnybrook's Odette Cancer Centre in Toronto observed a 90 percent increase in the number of women seeking cancer genetic counselling compared to the six months before the story broke.
The researchers found that women referred before or after the news were equally likely to be at high genetic risk. So, as well as the total number of referrals increasing, the number of patients identified as having a mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2 more than doubled (from 213 to 437 people). The authors say that this suggests that the 'Angelina effect' has led to more women who are at high risk coming forward for screening.
'It's not just worried women who came in, or those who have moderate or low risk - it was really high risk women who perhaps were concerned before about pursuing genetic counselling or genetic testing, but who somehow seemed to have felt reassured or encouraged by this story and came forward for assessment', study co-author Dr Andrea Eisen, head of the familial cancer programme at Sunnybrook, told The Canadian Press news agency.
The researchers plan to continue monitoring referrals to genetic counselling to see if the increased demand is maintained.
The study did not in fact investigate whether the women had heard about Jolie's situation but assumed that that story led to increased awareness of genetic breast cancer risk.
Jolie wrote in The New York Times that her doctors estimated that she had a 50 percent risk of developing ovarian cancer and an 87 percent risk of getting breast cancer in her lifetime. After having a preventative double mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgery, Jolie said that her risk of breast cancer was reduced to around five percent.
'Sometimes where there's a popular figure in the press, there's a lot of interest', Dr Eisen told The Canadian Press, 'But it's not always reaching the right women. In this case, it actually was the right message'.
The study was presented at an American Society of Clinical Oncology breast cancer symposium and has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.