In one of the bigger stories this year, actress Angelina Jolie caught both celebrity-watchers and health advocates off guard in May when she revealed in a New York Times op-ed that she had had a double mastectomy. She did this, she explained, because she carried a rare gene mutation that increased her likelihood of developing breast cancer to 87 percent.
Jolie's mother died of breast cancer at 56. Jolie was careful to explain why her situation was unusual. "Only a fraction of breast cancers result from an inherited gene mutation," she wrote. About 5 to 10 percent of all breast cancers are related to a BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 mutation.
But a new study shows that while her story certainly got a lot of attention, it unfortunately didn't do much to increase people's understanding of actual breast cancer risk.
Researchers at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins surveyed over 2,500 Americans and found that while 3 out of 4 knew that Jolie had gotten a mastectomy, less than 10 percent properly understood Jolie's condition.
The results were published this week in the journal Genetics in Medicine. ...
Indeed, Jolie might have gotten some people more confused how a family history of cancer plays into an individual's risk, the survey found.
The researchers surveyed participants while Jolie's story was still fresh in their minds — within three weeks of when she published her piece in the Times. ...
News coverage about Jolie's mastectomy tended to gloss over how rare her situation was, another recent study found. The genetic mutation that Jolie has only accounts for 5 to 10 percent of all breast cancer cases.
It's not surprising that people don't retain the details, says Dr. Robert Klitzman, director the graduate bioethics program at Columbia University, especially with rare and complex cases.
"Overall the point is there was more awareness," he says. If more women are aware that their genes could affect their risk of breast cancer, they're more likely to ask their doctors about it, according to Klitzman.
But that doesn't mean every woman needs a blood test to determine whether she carries the BRCA mutation, as the American Cancer Society's chief medical officer Otis Brawley noted in a statement released hours after Jolie's piece was published.