'Angelina' May Have Boosted Breast Cancer Screening

Breast cancer genetic screening increased in UK after actress had elective double mastectomy

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) The United Kingdom recently saw a spike in women seeking genetic screening for breast cancer. Researchers think the increase may be tied to a high-profile celebrity endorsement.

In May 2013, actress Angelina Jolie had genetic screening that determined she was at a heightened risk for breast cancer. The actress then opted to have both of her breasts removed as a preventive measure.

After Jolie announced her experience, referrals for breast cancer screenings in the UK more than doubled. Researchers are calling this the "Angelina Effect."

Jolie had a mutation to the gene BRCA1. The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes produce proteins that fight cancerous tumors. Mutations to these genes are associated with an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancers.

Dr. Gareth Evans, lead author on a recent study on the spike in cancer screening in the UK, said in a press statement that Jolie’s decision resonated with women “possibly due to her image as a glamorous and strong woman.

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.”

Breast cancer treatments include chemotherapy and radiation. In some cases, doctors perform a mastectomy, which is partial or total removal of one or both breasts.

Some women, like Jolie, choose to have both breasts removed before cancer develops. That procedure is called an elective double mastectomy.

Dr. Evans, a geneticist with the Genesis Breast Cancer Prevention Center in Manchester, UK, and colleagues collected data from 21 health centers for 2012 and 2013.

In those health centers, total referrals for genetic screening went from 12,142 in 2012 to 19,751 in 2013. Compared to 2012, referral rates were 17 percent higher from January to April 2013, the study authors found.

Then, when Jolie made her announcement in May, referrals increased by almost 50 percent.

Referral rates were 32 percent higher than the previous year in November and December 2013.

"These high-profile cases often mean that more women are inclined to contact centers … so that they can be tested for the mutation early and take the necessary steps to prevent themselves from developing the disease,” Dr. Evans said.

In an interview with dailyRx News, Kevin Hughes, MD, Co-Director of Avon Comprehensive Breast Evaluation Center at Massachusettes General Hospital, explained which women are typically recommended for genetic screenings.

Screening may be recommended, said Dr. Hughes, if a woman has "a strong family history of breast cancer, multiple relatives with breast or ovarian cancer, a family member who had breast or ovarian cancer under the age of 45, a family member who had both breast and ovarian cancer, or a family member with bilateral breast cancer."

According to Dr. Hughes, these family histories would prompt a physician to recommend a woman to genetic consulation with an expert who conducts genetic screening.

Dr. Hughes said that if a woman is found to have a BRCA mutation, doctors "tend to give patients the option between close screening with MRI and mammography or profilactic mastectomy [removal of breast to prevent breast cancer]." The close screening, he explained, can detect breast cancer in its early stages, when it's easier to treat.

The study by Dr. Evans and team was published online Sept. 18 in Breast Cancer Research.

The Breast Cancer Campaign funded the study. The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
September 23, 2014
Last Updated:
January 1, 2015