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Jolie Piques Women’s Interest In Hereditary Cancer Testing, But What Are The Lasting Effects?

Hollywood watchers were stunned in May 2013 when actress Angelina Jolie proclaimed in an op-ed for the New York Times that she had undergone three months of medical procedures to completely remove her breast tissue to try to prevent breast cancer. The actress hopes that “other women can benefit from my experience” by detailing the personal struggle she endured; the actress grappled with her diagnosis of an 87 percent chance of getting breast cancer sometime in the future based on genetic testing. Now, two years later, medical science and doctors continue to assess the “Angelina Jolie effect.”

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Individualized Risk

Geneticist Ricki Lewis notes that many people felt Jolie could afford her surgery and genetic testing because she’s rich and famous. However, Lewis points out that the procedures Jolie had are available to anyone with breast cancer. The actress elected to have surgery based on her family history and the genes passed down from the women in her ancestry, according to the Public Library of Science. Jolie’s mother died at age 56 from this disease, and the actress faced odds five times greater than the general populace of getting breast cancer.

After her surgery, Jolie’s risk shrunk to less than 5 percent. The general population has a 12 percent risk of breast cancer over a lifetime. The actress faced a tougher challenge because of a relatively rare mutation in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Some women with the mutations may have a 50 percent chance of getting breast cancer, but it remains up to the individual as to what action to take. Jolie took her genetics and the prevalence of the disease in her family line into account.

More Genes

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Companies have jumped at the chance to offer comprehensive genetic testing since the Angelina Jolie effect took place, as BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes aren’t the only ones that can have mutations that lead to cancer. Several companies have had testing procedures in place for years. Now newcomer Invitae offers a thorough search of 34 genetic markers that may increase chances of breast cancer.

If a primary care physician feels genetic testing is warranted based on a patient’s medical history, health insurance policies may cover some costs of these tests. The Invitae test costs $1,500 out of pocket. Doctors can order tests based on a patient’s unique genetic makeup, or the doctor can compare a patient’s DNA to the 34 known mutations.

New Survey

A study published in the Journal of Health Communication in July 2015 showed how women responded to Jolie’s announcement. A survey went out three days after her announcement, and 229 females responded. Of those, 30 percent intended to seek genetic testing for the BRCA1 gene, or the same mutation that Jolie has, according to DNA India. A full 23 percent of women said they would probably seek testing, while 7 percent said they would definitely get tested.

Image ©Licensed to i-Images Picture Agency. 10/06/2014. London, United Kingdom. Foreign Secretary William Hague and Angelina Jolie hold the End Sexual Violence in Conflict at the Excel Centre in East London, Picture by Andrew Parsons / i-Images/ Crown Copyright

Image ©Licensed to i-Images Picture Agency. 10/06/2014. London, United Kingdom. Foreign Secretary William Hague and Angelina Jolie hold the End Sexual Violence in Conflict at the Excel Centre in East London, Picture by Andrew Parsons / i-Images/ Crown Copyright

Women who identified closely with Jolie sought genetic testing more often than those who did not—regardless of family history of the disease. Researchers have noted that a well-known celebrity who relates to a particular audience may have more clout than a celebrity without much public interest. Regardless of whether Jolie’s announcement affected the lives of 1 woman or 1 million women, the fact remains her celebrity status did raise awareness of breast cancer. Her brave stance against the disease shows ordinary women that breast cancer can occur in anyone, even in high-powered Hollywood stars. Because no one may be absolutely certain of avoiding this terrible disease, women should at least join the discussion about what appropriate measures to take when talking about breast cancer awareness, prevention and treatment.

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