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The Jolie Effect: More Women Consider Cancer Gene Test


Sometimes all it takes is one celebrity's simple, powerful story to help women realize the health options they have.

A new Harris Interactive/HealthDay survey estimates that about 6 million women nationwide said they would seek medical advice on having preventive surgery to lower their cancer risk thanks to movie star Angelina Jolie's announcement in May that she had undergone a preventive double mastectomy.

Jolie, 38, said that she also planned to have her ovaries removed after a test revealed that she carried a gene mutation linked to breast and ovarian cancer.

Jolie's mother, Marcheline Bertand, 56, died of ovarian cancer in 2007, and Jolie's aunt, who also carried the gene, died in May of breast cancer at the age of 61.

The survey of nearly 1,100 U.S. women, conducted in mid-July, found that almost all women (86 percent) had heard of Jolie's double mastectomy. And 5 percent of those women said they would seek medical advice on preventive options like mastectomy or ovary removal because of Jolie's decision.

That may seem like a small percentage, but it translates to about 6 million women nationwide, said Harris Poll chairman Humphrey Taylor. "The news of Angelina Jolie's double mastectomy has had an impact on many American women," Taylor added.

Women who test positive for mutations in the genes BRCA1 or BRCA2 are five times more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer and up to 28 times more likely to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.

That means that 60 percent of women with a BRCA mutation will develop breast cancer in their lifetimes, compared with 12 percent of women in the general population. Up to 40 percent of women with a BRCA mutation will develop ovarian cancer, compared with 1.4 percent of women without the harmful BRCA1 or BRCA 2 mutation, say the NCI experts.

But experts stress that most breast cancers are not inherited, and gene mutations account for only about 5 to 10 percent of all breast cancers. While Jolie's experience might have made more women aware of the role of gene testing, most women do not need it.

"Genetic testing is only recommended for women at high risk," Debbie Saslow, director of breast and gynecologic cancer for the American Cancer Society in Atlanta, told HealthDay News.

Women at high risk either have a personal history or a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancers at a relatively young age, as in Jolie's family. "If your grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 70, that's not a reason to have genetic testing," Saslow said.

Based on her genetic testing results, Jolie opted for a preventive double mastectomy - the surgical removal of both breasts to reduce the risk of breast cancer. Studies suggest that preventive mastectomy can reduce breast cancer risk by about 90 percent in high-risk women, according to the NCI.

However, mastectomy is not the only option women have. Some women may opt to take drugs that help lower their cancer risk, while others may opt for intensive breast cancer screening that should include mammograms and MRI scans at least once a year.

In general, experts say women with BRCA mutations should have their ovaries removed by age 40, because there is no way to detect ovarian cancer early.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via


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