Angelina Jolie's preventive mastectomy raised awareness, but not knowledge of breast cancer risk

December 19, 2013

Angelina Jolie heightened awareness about breast cancer when she announced in a New York Times op-ed that she had undergone a preventive double mastectomy. But a new study led by researchers in the University of Maryland School of Public Health and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health reveals that widespread awareness of Jolie's story did not unfortunately translate into increased understanding of breast cancer risk.

The survey of more than 2,500 Americans found that three out of four were aware of Jolie's story, but fewer than 10% of those could correctly answer questions about the BRCA that Jolie carries and the typical person's of developing . Though very rare, women with harmful mutations in either of two genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, have a risk of breast cancer that is about five times the normal risk, and a risk of ovarian cancer that is about ten to thirty times normal. The study is published today in Genetics in Medicine.

"Ms. Jolie's health story was prominently featured throughout the media and was a chance to mobilize health communicators and educators to teach about the nuanced issues around genetic testing, risk, and prophylactic surgery," explained lead author Dina Borzekowski, who is a research professor in the University of Maryland School of Public Health's Department of Behavior and Community Health. "It feels like it was a missed opportunity to educate the public about a complex but rare health situation."

Among survey respondents who were aware of Jolie's story, nearly half could recall her estimated risk of breast cancer before the surgery, but fewer than 10 percent of those had the necessary information to interpret the risk of an average woman without a BRCA gene mutation relative to Jolie's risk. Additionally, exposure to Jolie's story was associated with greater confusion, rather than clarity, about the relationship between a family history of cancer and increased cancer risk. About half incorrectly thought that a lack of family history of cancer was associated with a lower than average personal risk of cancer, and among respondents who had at least one close relative affected by cancer, those who were aware of Jolie's story were less likely than those who were unaware of her story to estimate their own cancer risk as higher than average (39 vs. 59 percent).

"Since many more women without a family history develop breast cancer each year than those with, it is important that women don't feel falsely reassured by a negative ," said Dr. Debra Roter, co-author of the study and Director of the Center for Genomic Literacy and Communication at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Breast cancer cases linked to a BRCA gene mutation are extremely rare, and the average woman's risk of getting breast cancer over her lifetime if she does not have a BRCA mutation is between five and 15 percent.

Other findings included that more than half of the women (57%) who had heard the story said they would undergo similar surgery if they carried the faulty BRCA gene, and a majority (72%) of men and women surveyed felt Ms. Jolie did the right thing by publically announcing her situation.

The study concluded that despite the ability of celebrities to raise awareness of health issues by sharing personal stories, these messages need to be accompanied by a more purposeful communication effort to assist the public in understanding and using the complex diagnostic and treatment information that these stories convey.

Explore further: More women consider gene test after Angelina Jolie mastectomy revelation

Related Stories

More women consider gene test after Angelina Jolie mastectomy revelation

August 14, 2013
(HealthDay)—After hearing about film star Angelina Jolie's double mastectomy, a growing number of U.S. women now say they may ask their doctors whether the same preventive measure is right for them, according to a new Harris ...

Testing for hereditary breast cancer? Toolkit helps families talk, cope, decide what to do

September 11, 2013
Actress Angelina Jolie made headlines in May when she revealed she underwent a preventive double mastectomy to reduce her risk of cancer.

Research backs risk-reduction surgery for ovarian cancer

December 17, 2013
A study by Manchester scientists backs preventative surgery to improve survival for women who are at greater risk of getting ovarian cancer and suggests it appears helpful for women at risk of getting breast cancer because ...

Negative BRCA testing may not always imply lowered breast cancer risk

November 27, 2013
Women who are members of families with BRCA2 mutations but who test negative for the family-specific BRCA2 mutations are still at greater risk for developing breast cancer compared with women in the general population, according ...

Drug offers prevention hope for women with BRCA breast cancer gene

August 6, 2013
Use of the anti-cancer drug Tamoxifen is associated with a dramatically reduced risk of developing a second breast tumour among women with a high risk gene mutation who have experienced breast cancer already, a new study ...

What is BRCA1?

May 15, 2013
Actress Angelina Jolie has today written an op-ed in the New York Times explaining that she has opted to have a double mastectomy because she carries the hereditary BRCA1 gene, which she says increases her risk of breast ...

Recommended for you

Immune cells the missing ingredient in new bladder cancer treatment

July 24, 2017
New research offers a possible explanation for why a new type of cancer treatment hasn't been working as expected against bladder cancer.

Shooting the achilles heel of nervous system cancers

July 20, 2017
Virtually all cancer treatments used today also damage normal cells, causing the toxic side effects associated with cancer treatment. A cooperative research team led by researchers at Dartmouth's Norris Cotton Cancer Center ...

Molecular changes with age in normal breast tissue are linked to cancer-related changes

July 20, 2017
Several known factors are associated with a higher risk of breast cancer including increasing age, being overweight after menopause, alcohol intake, and family history. However, the underlying biologic mechanisms through ...

Immune-cell numbers predict response to combination immunotherapy in melanoma

July 20, 2017
Whether a melanoma patient will better respond to a single immunotherapy drug or two in combination depends on the abundance of certain white blood cells within their tumors, according to a new study conducted by UC San Francisco ...

Discovery could lead to better results for patients undergoing radiation

July 19, 2017
More than half of cancer patients undergo radiotherapy, in which high doses of radiation are aimed at diseased tissue to kill cancer cells. But due to a phenomenon known as radiation-induced bystander effect (RIBE), in which ...

Definitive genomic study reveals alterations driving most medulloblastoma brain tumors

July 19, 2017
The most comprehensive analysis yet of medulloblastoma has identified genomic changes responsible for more than 75 percent of the brain tumors, including two new suspected cancer genes that were found exclusively in the least ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.