Jolie's "My Medical Choice" Creates Greater Confusion About Breast Cancer Risk

Last spring, Angelina Jolie wrote an article in the New York Times, detailing her decision to undergo a double mastectomy. Her choice was made after discovering that she carries a mutated BRCA1 gene, an inherited mutation that increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancer in women by an average of 65 percent. While her piece encouraged much needed conversations about the options women have for breast cancer prevention, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the University of Maryland School of Public Health have found that the star's story has done little to further the public's understanding of breast cancer risk.

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Researchers from both institutions conducted a study on 2,500 Americans, three weeks after Jolie's article published. While their observations found that the story received an exceptional amount of exposure, reaching three out of four Americans, they also discovered that increased awareness did not correlate with a greater knowledge of what it means to be predisposed to breast cancer. In fact, those who were aware of Jolie's story were associated with an increased confusion about the relationship between family history of cancer and individual risk. What resulted in half of those surveyed was the false idea that a lack of cancer in family history meant a lower-than-average individual risk.

How Did Jolie's Story Spread?

An interesting point about the participants in the study is that only a minority of them learned about Jolie's story from the original article itself. Sixty-one percent learned of it through national or local television coverage, 21.5 percent found out from an entertainment news piece, and only 3.4 percent read her post on the New York Times. "As we learn more about the genetic contribution to disease risk, it's crucial that health journalists work to ensure an accurate understanding," said Katherine Smith, PhD, author of the study and professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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The "Angelina Effect"

Since the moral of Angelina's story didn't register completely with its audience, what is the moral of these disappointing findings? The phenomenon of "celebrity for a cause" has its merits. Celebrities like Jolie can tag their name on a project and it spreads like wildfire, bringing whatever topic they desire into the public's eye. Therein, however, lies its limits. "I hope that other women can benefit from my experience, "Jolie writes. But what would be an actual benefit, a greater understanding of the complexities surrounding gene inheritance and its influence on cancer risk, is falling on deaf ears.

Resources For Breast And Ovarian Cancer Risk

For those who have heard of Angelina's medical choice, but would like more information about cancer risk, genetic testing, and mastectomies, these resources are a great place to start:

  • National Cancer Institute (NCI). This fact sheet provides information on BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.
  • The American Cancer Society. Additional materials for breast reconstruction after a mastectomy.
  • Cancer Information Service. Part of NCI, this service gives you direct access to a specialist who can provide answers to cancer-related questions.