The enduring ‘Angelina effect’ on breast cancer awareness and gene testing
If there was ever any doubt about the magnitude of Angelina Jolie’s fame, there should be no mistaking her power now.
Two years after the actress eloquently described her decision to have her breasts removed due to a high genetic risk of cancer, researchers are still documenting the “Angelina effect” on women across the globe.
Several studies have now been published in medical journals detailing a surge in women seeking genetic testing for BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 gene mutations following her story. There has also been an increase in the number of women inquiring about preventative surgical procedures.
On Monday, Austrian doctors reported that two surveys of 1000 women in Vienna carried out before and after Jolie told her story in 2013 showed marked differences in awareness of breast cancer and the options women have if they carry a gene mutation that puts them at higher risk.
In the second poll, 20 per cent of women said the media coverage of Jolie’s story piqued their interest in breast cancer and more of them knew about reconstructive breast surgery and the potential to use their own tissue to rebuild breasts rather than implants. The research was published in the journal Cancer.
Sue Shanley, acting director of the familial cancer clinic at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, said referrals to Australian clinics tripled in the month of Jolie’s story and had levelled off at about double the rate seen before 2013, suggesting an enduring effect.
“The increase in referrals has been in people who were appropriate to see us, so it hasn’t just generated anxiety in people without a significant history. It’s been the people we wanted to see,” said the clinical geneticist.
British health services have reported similar increases in referrals, along with enquiries for risk-reducing mastectomies. They concluded that Jolie’s story likely “had a bigger impact than other celebrity announcements, possibly due to her glamorous image and relationship to Brad Pitt”.
“This may have lessened patients’ fears about a loss of sexual identity post preventative surgery and encouraged those who had not previously engaged with health services to consider genetic testing,” they wrote in the journal Breast Cancer Research.
Krystal Barter, an Australian mother of three who has had similar preventative surgery to Jolie (breast, ovary and fallopian tube removal) because of the BRCA 1 mutation, said her charity “Pink Hope” was overwhelmed with thousands of inquiries in the days after Jolie’s story was published in The New York Times.
“It was a great thing but it meant we had a lot of people to help… My five year plan turned into a one week plan!” she said.
Ms Barter, 32, said Jolie undoubtedly caused people to think about their own family history and genetic testing. It also helped her charity grow and partner with cancer hospitals, including Peter Mac, to provide people with more information.
“The one thing that Angelina has done is get more people talking about it and that is going to save lives,” she said. “In America, statistics have come out saying that 90 per cent of BRCA gene mutation carriers do not know they have it. How many people out there have no idea and are going to get cancer?”