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Breast Cancer Health Center

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Angelina Jolie & Knowledge of Breast Cancer Risks

Star underwent preventive mastectomy because of genetic vulnerability

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Robert Preidt

HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Dec. 19, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- When actress Angelina Jolie went public about her preventive double mastectomy, it did not lead to an increased understanding of the genetic risk of breast cancer, researchers say.

Although it raised awareness of breast cancer, exposure to Jolie's story may have resulted in greater confusion about the link between a family history of breast cancer and increased cancer risk, according to the study, published Dec. 19 in the journal Genetics in Medicine.

Earlier this year, Jolie revealed that she had both breasts removed after learning that she carried a mutation in a gene called BRCA1 that is linked to breast and ovarian cancers. Women with mutations in that gene and the BRCA2 gene have a five times higher risk of breast cancer and a 10 to 30 times higher risk of developing ovarian cancer than those without the mutations.

For the study, researchers surveyed more than 2,500 Americans. About 75 percent were aware of Jolie's story, the investigators found. But fewer than 10 percent of the respondents could correctly answer questions about the BRCA gene mutation that Jolie carries and the typical woman's risk of developing breast cancer.

"Ms. Jolie's health story was prominently featured throughout the media and was a chance to mobilize health communicators and educators to teach about the nuanced issues around genetic testing, risk and [preventive] surgery," study lead author Dina Borzekowski, a research professor in the University of Maryland School of Public Health's department of behavior and community health, said in a university news release.

However, it "feels like it was a missed opportunity to educate the public about a complex but rare health situation," she added.

About half of the survey respondents incorrectly thought that a lack of family history of cancer was associated with a lower than average personal risk. Among people who had at least one close relative develop cancer, those who knew about Jolie's experience were less likely than those unaware of her story to estimate their own cancer risk as higher than average, 39 percent versus 59 percent.

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