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

December 19, 2013, University of Maryland

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

T-cells engineered to outsmart tumors induce clinical responses in relapsed Hodgkin lymphoma

January 16, 2018
WASHINGTON-(Jan. 16, 2018)-Tumors have come up with ingenious strategies that enable them to evade detection and destruction by the immune system. So, a research team that includes Children's National Health System clinician-researchers ...

Researchers identify new treatment target for melanoma

January 16, 2018
Researchers in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania have identified a new therapeutic target for the treatment of melanoma. For decades, research has associated female sex and a history of previous ...

More evidence of link between severe gum disease and cancer risk

January 16, 2018
Data collected during a long-term health study provides additional evidence for a link between increased risk of cancer in individuals with advanced gum disease, according to a new collaborative study led by epidemiologists ...

Researchers develop a remote-controlled cancer immunotherapy system

January 15, 2018
A team of researchers has developed an ultrasound-based system that can non-invasively and remotely control genetic processes in live immune T cells so that they recognize and kill cancer cells.

Dietary fat, changes in fat metabolism may promote prostate cancer metastasis

January 15, 2018
Prostate tumors tend to be what scientists call "indolent" - so slow-growing and self-contained that many affected men die with prostate cancer, not of it. But for the percentage of men whose prostate tumors metastasize, ...

Pancreatic tumors may require a one-two-three punch

January 15, 2018
One of the many difficult things about pancreatic cancer is that tumors are resistant to most treatments because of their unique density and cell composition. However, in a new Wilmot Cancer Institute study, scientists discovered ...

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.