When Angelina Jolie Pitt started talking about cancer, people listened.
A new study published Sept. 28 in the journal Cancer found that significantly more women knew about reconstructive breast surgery following a double mastectomy after Jolie Pitt announced she had undergone the procedure.
In May 2013, Jolie Pitt wrote in a New York Times op-ed that she had a BRCA1 mutation that, along with her family history, put her at a greatly increased risk for breast and ovarian cancers. That’s why she had decided to have a double mastectomy and reconstructive breast surgery, she wrote.
Then, last May, she announced again in a Times op-ed that she had decided to have her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed in order to further reduce her risk.
Both op-eds circulated widely online.
After the first announcement, an AARP report found that more women were undergoing genetic testing to find out if they, too, carried a BRCA mutation.
This genetic predisposition comes in two types and can significantly increase women’s cancer rates.
BRCA1, which Jolie Pitt has, gives women a 55 – 65% chance of developing breast cancer, while that risk is only 12% in the general population, according to the National Cancer Institute. But BRCA mutations are incredibly rare — only 1% of women actually carry them, according to another study in Cancer.
Confusion about these facts caused some people to overestimate the risks associated with BRCA mutations following Jolie Pitt’s first announcement. A December 2013 study in Genetics in Medicine found that while three in four respondents were aware of her surgery, only fewer than 10% could accurately interpret how Jolie Pitt’s risk compared to other women’s.
But this new study, conducted in Austria, found that Jolie Pitt’s decision to go public actually helped more women understand that they could get reconstructive surgery after having both of their breasts removed. The researchers polled two sets of 1,000 women before (in March 2013) Jolie Pitt’s first announcement (which was in May 2013), and after (in June 2013) to try to gauge the effect her announcement had on public awareness.
While her disclosure helped educate some women on specific aspects of breast reconstruction, the effect may be limited. In response to the question “Has the related media coverage made you deal more intensively with the topic of breast cancer?” 80% of women polled after Jolie Pitt’s op-ed said “no.”
Ultimately, however, Jolie Pitt’s discussion of her own experience has seemed to get more women talking to their doctors about breast and ovarian cancers, one of the study authors said in a statement. And that’s the real win. Because while celebrity role models can get people talking, the best information specific to individual women comes from their doctors.
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