'Angelina Effect' Boosts Breast Cancer Referrals, Study Finds

Angelina Jolie is pictured on July 29, 2014 in Universal City, Calif. (Credit: Vera Anderson/Getty Images)

By Dr. Celine Thum

The so-called "Angelina effect" may have led more women with family histories of breast cancer to undergo counseling and gene testing, according to a new study.

Researchers in the United Kingdom found that testing for the BRCA mutation - a hereditary genetic glitch known to put a person at higher risk for breast and ovarian cancers - doubled in the six months following Jolie's bombshell announcement that she had undergone a prophylactic double mastectomy because she tested positive for the mutation.

Jolie's mother, Marcheline Bertrand, died in 2007 after a seven-year battle with ovarian cancer.

The researchers also found that in addition to the increase in BRCA testing, overall referrals to hereditary cancer clinics surged from about 1,900 per month to more than 4,800 per month in June and July 2013 - the two months immediately following Jolie's announcement.

The study was published Sept. 18 in the journal Breast Cancer Research.

"A lot of us around the U.K. noticed that many of women were getting referred to us for hereditary breast cancer, and a lot of them mentioned Angelina as part of the reason," said lead study author Gareth Evans, a professor of cancer epidemiology at the University of Manchester. "It made women come forward who wouldn't have otherwise," Evans said. "It somewhat demystified the issue of genetic testing."

Still, because the researchers did not survey patients directly, it is not possible to say for sure that Jolie's revelation drove their decisions.

But experts not involved with the study warned that the "Angelina effect" could be a double-edged sword, particularly for women with breast cancer who don't have the BRCA mutation. They feared that women without these high-risk mutations would opt for preventative mastectomy anyway, putting them at risk of having had unnecessary surgery and the multitude of side effects that come with it.

"I think [Jolie] is in a very different situation from the overwhelming majority of women," said Dr. Harry Bear, division chairman of surgical oncology at the Virginia Commonwealth University's Massey Cancer Center. "She had a known genetic mutation and known family history. Only 5 percent of breast cancer is BRCA positive, and it applies to very few women that have a breast cancer diagnosis."

Bear added that for women with breast cancer who do not have a BRCA mutation, the risk of developing cancer in the other breast is very low, about 1 in 200. For these women, he said, removing the other breast could do more harm than good.

Doctor's Take:

When a well-known public figure shares their personal struggle, people listen, as the "Angelina effect" dramatically demonstrates. But remember, talk to your doctor so that he or she may address your issues on an individual bases.

After all, while what a celebrity chooses to do may be the start of a life-saving intervention for some people, their actions may not be ideal for everyone.