The positive ‘Angelina Jolie effect’ on breast cancer tests

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Since Angelina Jolie’s announcement of undergoing a double mastectomy to prevent breast cancer, the referrals to breast cancer clinics in the UK have doubled.

During May last year the actress revealed that she had undergone the surgery after being informed that she had an 87% risk of the disease due to a high-risk gene.

A study has found that this information encouraged other women with concerns about their family history to obtain advice.

Around 5% of breast cancers are thought to be due to genes.

Professor Gareth Evans, from the University of Manchester, led a team who believes that the Angelina Jolie effect has been worldwide and long-lasting, as it appears to have increased the referral levels to appropriate centres.

The researchers studied referrals made to about 20 genetic clinics and centres in the UK after the story about Angelina Jolie appeared in the press during May 2013.

During June and July, the number of referrals from GPs for DNA tests and genetic counselling for breast cancer mutations increased two and a half times, compared to the same period during 2012. The study also revealed that referrals doubled for the period from August to October, compared to the previous year.

Professor Evans stated that the revelation by Angelina Jolie is likely to have made a bigger impact, due to her image as a strong, glamorous woman. He said this view may have lessened patient fears about a potential loss of sexual identity after the surgery, and has prompted those who had not seriously considered it to obtain genetic testing.

There are a small number of people who are diagnosed with breast cancer, with an inherited fault in one of the known breast cancer genes. This places the 5% at higher risk than others.

This is not the first time that a celebrity has had this effect. When Jade Goody was diagnosed with cervical cancer and passed away, the attendance for cervical cancer screening increased during 2008 and 2009.

The chief executive at Breast Cancer Campaign, which offered some of the funding for the research, the openness of Angelina Jolie to talk about her BRCA1 mutation and her decision to have a mastectomy, along with the publicity and publication regarding the NICE guidelines soon thereafter, prompted many women who may not have done so, to approach health services regarding their risk and options.

She added that funding for genetic services should be able to respond quickly to the demand for risk counselling and genetic testing. She said the current funding level should be reviewed to avoid any unnecessary delays, which are generally stressful for patients.

Women have a one in eight chance of developing breast cancer during their lives, but genes place some at higher risk.

About one in 1000 people in the UK will have inherited a BRCA1 mutation and the proportion is similar for the BRCA2 mutation.

The disease can be prevented by being tested early. This may require a risk-reducing mastectomy, lifestyle changes and cancer preventing drugs.

Image Credit: Gage Skidmore

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