'Jolie effect' on breast cancer?

By Michelle Roberts
Health editor, BBC News online

Media caption,
Qualified doctor Michelle Roberts with advice for women concerned about genetic threat of breast cancer

Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie says she decided to go public about opting to have an elective double mastectomy to "encourage every woman" to think about their own risk of breast cancer.

The 37-year-old was told by doctors that she had an 87% risk of developing breast cancer without this radical treatment because of genes she inherited from her mother.

Jolie explained that her mother fought breast cancer for nearly a decade and died at the age of 56.

While most women will not have the same access to expensive private medical care as Jolie, testing for high-risk breast cancer genes is available in many developed health systems around the world.

The NHS in the UK offers free testing to anyone who could be at high risk because they have a strong family history of the disease.

Most cases of breast cancer are not caused by inherited genes, but around one in 500 people carries a gene that puts them at high risk.

Surgery to remove both breasts can slash this lifetime risk down to about 5%.

Jade effect

Jolie hopes that by speaking out about her own experience more women will get tested.

Jolie is not the first celebrity to change women's attitudes to cancer.

In 2009, 27-year-old reality TV star Jade Goody announced that she had terminal cervical cancer.

Image caption,
In the year of Jade Goody's illness, more women attended cervical screenings

Her death in March of that year sparked a massive increase in the number of women coming forward to be screened for this cancer.

Robert Music, director of Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust, said: "We saw an extra 400,000 women going for screening. That's a rise of 12%.

"It had a huge effect. When Jade was diagnosed as terminal the news was in everyone's living rooms twenty-four-seven.

"As a charity, we saw a 300% increase in demand for our services at the time."

This came mostly from young women with whom Jade's story had struck a chord.

Sadly, the Jade effect was short-lived, says Robert Music. Screening rates fell back down again a year later and have remained so.

Dr Richard Francis of Breakthrough Breast Cancer says we may well see a 'Jolie effect' for breast cancer.

"It may raise awareness among women, which is important.

"There are many different types of breast cancer and that is not something that is really appreciated. It's often seen as one disease.

"We do not want women to be scared or worried but we do want women to be aware."

He said it was important to remember that BRCA gene faults were rare and in most cases linked to family history.

"For women like Angelina it's important that they are made fully aware of all the options that are available, including risk-reducing surgery and extra breast screening.

"Though Angelina decided that a preventative mastectomy was the right choice for her this may not be the case for another woman in a similar situation.

"We urge anyone who is worried about their risk of breast cancer to talk it through with their doctor."

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