-- Robert Preidt
THURSDAY, Dec. 19, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- When actress
Angelina Jolie went public about her preventive double mastectomy,
it did not lead to an increased understanding of the genetic risk
of breast cancer, researchers say.
Although it raised awareness of breast cancer, exposure to
Jolie's story may have resulted in greater confusion about the link
between a family history of breast cancer and increased cancer
risk, according to the study, published Dec. 19 in the journal
Genetics in Medicine.
Earlier this year, Jolie revealed that she had both breasts
removed after learning that she carried a mutation in a gene called
BRCA1 that is linked to breast and ovarian cancers. Women with
mutations in that gene and the BRCA2 gene have a five times higher
risk of breast cancer and a 10 to 30 times higher risk of
developing ovarian cancer than those without the mutations.
For the study, researchers surveyed more than 2,500 Americans.
About 75 percent were aware of Jolie's story, the investigators
found. But fewer than 10 percent of the respondents could correctly
answer questions about the BRCA gene mutation that Jolie carries
and the typical woman's risk of developing breast cancer.
"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 [preventive] surgery," study lead author Dina Borzekowski, a research professor in the University of Maryland School of Public Health's department of behavior and community health, said in a university news release.
However, it "feels like it was a missed opportunity to educate
the public about a complex but rare health situation," she
About half of the survey respondents incorrectly thought that a
lack of family history of cancer was associated with a lower than
average personal risk. Among people who had at least one close
relative develop cancer, those who knew about Jolie's experience
were less likely than those unaware of her story to estimate their
own cancer risk as higher than average, 39 percent versus 59
That's a concern, another researcher said. "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 family history," study co-author Dr. Debra Roter,
director of the Center for Genomic Literacy and Communication at
the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in the
The researchers also found that 57 percent of women who knew
about Jolie's story said they would have similar surgery if they
knew they had a faulty BRCA gene. Nearly three-quarters of women
and men in the survey felt Jolie did the right thing by going
public about her experience.
Cases of breast cancer linked to a BRCA gene mutation are
extremely rare. In the United States, a woman's risk of ever
getting breast cancer if she does not have a BRCA mutation is
between 5 percent and 15 percent.
While celebrities can help raise awareness of health issues by
sharing their own experiences, it's important to help the public
understand and use the information about diagnosis and treatment
contained in these stories, the researchers concluded.
The American Cancer Society has more about
breast cancer risk factors.
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