In May of last year, actress Angelina Jolie announced she underwent a double mastectomy. The mastectomy was performed to reduce her risk of breast cancer after testing positive for a BRCA1 gene mutation. The BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations, if present, can significantly increase the chance of breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Instead of waiting for the cancer to potentially strike, Jolie decided to take proactive measures and have both breasts removed.
Jolie was very forthcoming about the procedure, which resulted in women stopping to listen. The Los Angeles Times reports that the public announcement by Jolie triggered a significant rise in the number women with a family history of breast cancer being tested for the mutation, and this increase persisted for the five months following her public disclosure. It is important to note that the announcement didn’t just bring out the hypochondriacs. In fact, the researchers found just the opposite. The reports note that many of the women who came in had been procrastinating about returning for a follow-up screening.
The study was only performed in the UK, which leads many to wonder if a similar effect could be seen in the U.S. The study’s lead investigator, Dr. Gareth Evans, who studies medical genetics and epidemiology at the University of Manchester, said the phenomenon could reflect the strength of Jolie’s image as both glamorous and strong. It took the taboo feeling away from both the testing and procedure.
Medical News Today reports that approximately 12 percent of women in the general population will develop breast cancer at some point in their lives, but around 55 to 65 percent of women with a BRCA1 gene mutation and 45 percent with a BRCA2 gene mutation will develop the disease. Though Jolie took extreme measures to ensure her chances of suffering from breast cancer were slim, she did not have to make that decision public knowledge. However, in an article written by Jolie herself in the New York Times, she expresses why she chose to share her story.
“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.”
From the UK study, it appears that women did listen, and many may have Jolie to thank for being able to address their cancer risks and options early on, before the onset of cancer itself. The researchers found that in June and July of 2013 — immediately after Jolie’s announcement — referrals for genetic testing increased 2.5-fold when compared with the same period in 2012, from 1,981 to 4,847. A 2-fold increase remained until October 2013, after which time genetic testing referrals began to fall.
That is a significant increase over previous years, and the only explanation for the surge is Angelina Jolie. Therefore, the researchers are calling the increase the “Angelina Effect.”