Angelina Jolie Did Not Increase Cancer Risk Awareness Says Survey

Breast cancer risk awareness not raised by Angelina Jolie double mastectomy according to study

(RxWiki News) Last Spring, Angelina Jolie announced she had undergone a preventive double mastectomy because she had a rare genetic risk. Did this major media story improve breast cancer risk awareness?

According to a survey conducted just weeks after Jolie’s announcement in a New York Times editorial, very few adults had an accurate understanding of breast cancer risks.

Most survey participants were unable to correctly name an average woman’s breast cancer risks or the risks of women who have a family history of the disease.

"Learn about your individual cancer risks."

The purpose of this study led by Dina Borzekowski, PhD, professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health and Adjunct Professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, was to see if the intense media attention on Jolie’s story had an effect on overall breast cancer risk awareness.

Angelina Jolie’s mother died at the age of 56 from ovarian cancer after a 10-year battle. Because of this family history, Jolie had genetic testing, which revealed a defect in the BRCA1 gene. This genetic defect increases a woman’s lifetime risk of both breast and ovarian cancer.

Jolie was told she had an 87 percent chance of developing breast cancer and a 50 percent chance of having ovarian cancer. Her choice to have both breasts removed decreased her breast cancer risks to under 5 percent.

For this study, a total of 2,572 adults were asked if they were aware of Jolie’s story, what parts of the story they remember and what they knew about breast cancer risks among women with and without a family history of the disease.

Most of those surveyed (74 percent) were aware that Jolie had undergone a double mastectomy because she carried a faulty gene. And about half (47 percent) correctly recalled that she had a breast cancer risk of 80-90 percent.

When asked what an average woman’s breast cancer risks are, about a third (31 percent) knew most women have a 5–10 percent chance of developing the disease.

More respondents (nearly 23 percent) were able to say that BRCA mutations are responsible for about 10 percent of breast cancers.

“Interestingly, men were significantly more accurate in their knowledge of this information than women, as were better educated and more numerate respondents, as well as those from the Western and Midwest geographic regions,” the researchers wrote.

About half of the respondents (47 percent) thought that not having a family history lowered breast cancer risks to below those of an average woman.

Jolie’s experience did spur positive action, with about 7 percent reporting they had and/or encouraged a relative to have a mammogram, and about 6 percent said the story had spurred them to learn more about their family cancer history.

“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,” study author Katherine Smith, PhD, professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in a statement.

This study was published December 18 in Genetics in Medicine.

The research was funded by the Johns Hopkins Center for Genomic Literacy and Communication and the Department of Health, Behavior, and Society (faculty discretionary account) of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

No conflicts of interest were declared.

Review Date: 
December 18, 2013