While Angelina Jolie’s announcement that she had a preventive double mastectomy to avoid breast cancer shocked many, a new study shows it did little to increase understanding about breast cancer risk.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the
University of Maryland School of Public Health discovered that about 75 percent
of Americans were aware that the Oscar-winning actress had the procedure done after she discovered she had the BRCA gene variant that raises risk for the disease. But,
less than 10 percent of those surveyed knew what the risk of breast cancer was
for a woman who did not have a genetic risk for breast cancer.
"Ms. Jolie's reach is
exceptional. Our study confirms that the public became aware of her health
narrative," lead author Dina Borzekowski, professor at the University of
Maryland School of Public Health and adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins
Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in a press release. "What was lost
was the rarity of Jolie's situation and how BRCA is
associated with breast cancer."
Researchers talked to 2,500 adults across the country three weeks after the New York Times ran Jolie’s op-ed. The majority of responders learned about the story from national or local TV reports, about one-fifth read about it on an entertainment site, and just 3.4 percent actually read her New York Time piece.
The 37-year-old wrote in May that doctors discovered she has
a mutation on her BRCA1 gene, which made her more likely to develop breast and ovarian cancer. She had relatives in her family die from cancer, including her mother and her aunt.
Doctors had calculated Jolie's risk of developing breast cancer to be 87 percent, while her chance for ovarian cancer was at 50 percent. Due to these odds, she decided to have her breast tissue removed.
It was a revealed later that Jolie also intended to have her ovaries removed to further minimize her cancer risk.
Just half of survey participants could remember Jolie's exact chance of getting breast cancer before the surgery.
Researchers also found that people were more confused
after they read Jolie’s story about how being related to someone with cancer
increased risk. About half wrongly thought that having a close family member with
cancer decreased the chance of them getting cancer. Out of the survey
responders who had at least one close family member with cancer and knew the
story, only 39 percent correctly estimated their cancer risk as higher than
average. Those who did not know the Jolie story and had a familial connection said they had a cancer increased risk 59 percent of the time.
"These findings suggest that celebrities can certainly bring attention and increased awareness to matters of personal health, but there's also a need for more purposeful public education efforts around complex medical issues such as breast cancer risk," lead study author Katherine Smith, professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in a press release. "We must continue to improve our understanding of the best ways to get clear, useful information to vulnerable and high-risk populations."
The study was published in Genetics in Medicine on Dec. 19.
The government estimates that 232,340 women will get breast cancer by the end of 2013, and 40,000 women will die from the disease.
However, experts are split on whether those with the BRCA mutation should get their breasts
removed even if they don’t have cancer. A September study showed that contralateral
prophylactic mastectomy, a procedure where a healthy, unaffected breast is
removed in a cancer patient, did not improve survival rates much.