Angelina Jolie, despite not having held many large movie roles in recent years, is still one of the most followed stars in Hollywood – perhaps due to her good looks, philanthropic actions, and the fact that she is married to Brad Pitt. As such, Jolie holds much sway amongst the Hollywood community and the general public. So when Jolie released an op-ed in the New York times this May announcing she had undergone a double mastectomy in order to prevent herself from obtaining breast cancer, people paid attention.
In a recent study conducted by the University of Maryland, researchers discovered that 74% of respondents (2,572 adults) knew of Jolie’s actions. As reported by the researchers, “When celebrities reveal health narratives, their stories have the potential to stimulate public interest and awareness of illness or medical procedures, inspire others to face similar medical issues, and promote public health policy. Media coverage of celebrity cancer experiences has been shown to impact health service utilization and adherence to preventive health guidelines…One study has shown a stronger impact of celebrity health narratives among the less educated and those who share demographic characteristics with the celebrity; another study has suggested that an emotional involvement with the celebrity may be influential..”
But while Jolie’s op-ed may have raised breast cancer awareness amongst the general public, it did little to actually educate said populace about the science behind breast cancer itself. As previously stated, 74% of the respondents were aware of Jolie’s story, but fewer than 10% of the respondents actually understood the risk Jolie faced of developing breast cancer due to a genetic mutation, as opposed to someone who did not have the same mutation.
Jolie’s situation was special because she discovered a mutation in the BRCA1 gene. People who experience a mutation in either the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes face five times the risk of developing breast cancer as opposed to those who have no mutation and experience a 10-30 times higher risk for ovarian cancer compared to the average individual.
While the risk of developing cancer is higher for those with the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations, the likelihood of having said mutation is low. According to the Mayo Clinic, BRCA mutations are responsible for “about 5 percent of breast cancers and about 10 to 15 percent of ovarian cancers.”
In her op-ed, Jolie stated, “I choose not to keep my story private because there are many women who do not know that they might be living under the shadow of cancer. It is my hope that they, too, will be able to get gene tested, and that if they have a high risk they, too, will know that they have strong options.” Since the publishing of her op-ed, many facilities have reported an increase in requests to undergo gene testing. According to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, however, such testing could be detrimental to those for whom it is unnecessary: “The USPSTF recommends against routine genetic counseling or BRCA testing for women whose family history is not associated with an increased risk for mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.”
The genetic testing can be detrimental for several different reasons. “Intensive screening for breast and ovarian cancer is associated with false-positive results, unnecessary imaging and unneeded surgery,” stated the USPSTF. Not only can the results be detrimental to one’s physical health, but also one’s bank account. Genetic testing to check for mutations in the BRCA gene runs around $3,000, which is a large sum of money to waste if one has no history of genetic mutation in one’s family.
After gathering all the results of their survey, the researchers at the University of Maryland had one piece of advice for the general public who had read about Jolie’s experience: “While celebrities can bring heightened awareness to health issues, there is a need for these messages to be accompanied by more purposeful communication efforts to assist the public in understanding and using the complex diagnostic and treatment information that these stories convey.”
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